Reaching out to refugees

Nicole James | Turkey

Close to home

The picture broke her heart. Although the image of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year old Syrian boy who drowned September 2, 2015, attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey to Greece, circuited the globe, for long-term worker Annie*, the image hit closer to home. The little boy had washed up onshore in Turkey, her host country.

“Life in America or South Africa or even Europe seems very far removed from the practical needs [of refugees],” she mused. In Turkey, however, Kurdi’s picture highlighted the plight of people in her own city, like another little boy from Syria she saw begging in the snow, wearing only a T-shirt against the cold.

“So many refugees from Syria die on the [sea] and die on the long walks they have to take. They need media exposure in order for it to be real, in order for people’s hearts to be broken the ways Jesus’ heart was broken,” Annie explained. 

The refugees also need help. So Annie begged her team in Turkey to respond to the crisis. First, they approached the church.

“Our role here is supporting the local church,” asserted Phillip*, the OM field leader of Turkey. “Our local church pastor couldn’t do much on his own, but our team was able to say, there’s this refugee situation. We can help the church with that... Annie is on fire. She’s going for it. She’s got a heart for this kind of thing.”

Phillip and Annie heard of another church that had started providing relief boxes to refugees they registered in the city. Because the numbers had quickly escalated, in the beginning of December 2015, Phillip and Annie’s church volunteered to start partnering with this church by distributing 100 relief boxes once a week.

Around half of Annie’s team pitched in, along with a few Turks from the church, the group splitting up into different stations during the 4-hour shift. Some scanned refugee’s smart phones to confirm their place at that day’s distribution; some stood behind tables of second hand clothing, helping people find necessary items; some handed boxes to the people who came to pick them up.

Language was an issue – the OM team and the locals all spoke Turkish rather than Arabic. Annie asked a Syrian expat friend she’d met in language school to help translate. “She also walked the streets to find Syrian refugees with me. That was really amazing,” Annie remembered. “I want to be able to ask them how did they get here, where do they live. She’s the way that I talk to them.” 

Software to serve

Indeed, according to Craig*, an elder at the the Turkish church spearheading the operation, the ministry exists to form personal connections and, eventually, plant churches. “We see doing something about the refugee crisis as part of what it means to plant a church,” he explained. “It’s not directly bringing new congregations into existence, but it’s helping the [Turkish] church do what a church ought to do, which includes responding to regional crisis like the refugee crisis: meeting the needs of your neighbours.”

As he examined ways to meet the refugee’s needs and model practical service to the Turkish churches, Craig realized he needed a new system. So he asked Keaton*, a short-term intern working for his organisation, to develop a software programme for aid distribution. Using smart phones, volunteers could snap pictures of the refugees and register them under a unique QR code. Each week, volunteers send text messages to registered refugees, inviting them to pick up a relief box. By scanning the QR codes upon arrival, volunteers verify the identity of the people asking for aid.

What started in May 2015, as a small ministry out of two local churches quickly grew into a system containing over 5,500 refugee names. Craig and Keaton sourced a building for the refugee project and began overseeing a larger weekly distribution of 500 boxes. The old building with winding staircases and floorboards that creaked and bubbled under the constant activity offered enough room for OM to join as a weekly distributer, along with a third church.

“It’s encouraging to be able to see churches wanting to partner, seeing how the body of Christ is rising up,” Keaton stated. “The Turkish church is rising up and so many ethnicities are working together.”

Combined, the three church groups give out around 700 boxes of aid a week, each box worth USD 10: an assortment of rice, pasta, lentils, oil, sugar, and tea sufficient to feed a family of three for one week.

Besides the boxes, the centre also has a small medical closet staffed as able by volunteer doctors, a prayer room, a children’s play area, and ample evangelistic material on hand. A few months into the distribution process, one refugee woman came to the centre to receive some food and, through a translator, mentioned she had a problem with her back. Keaton asked if he could pray for her, and she began crying. “You’re not just addressing physical needs but spiritual ones,” she affirmed.

What to remember

When talking about the refugees, both Annie and Keaton emphasised the same thing: refugees are people. “The reason refugees are refugees isn’t because they’re terrorists; they’re running from terrorism,” Keaton said. “We need to be light and shine in that darkness.”

“It was a revelation to realise refugees are a lot like me and you,” Annie shared. “They have children just the way I do. Their children get sick just the way mine got sick this week.”

In Turkey, the refugees are not just people picking up boxes once a week, they have become part of daily life. One day, the wife of the OM field leader of Turkey took their children to a nearby park. While the kids were playing, she looked around and realised that every family present was speaking a different language, the people at the park representing at least four different nationalities. In Turkey, the refugee presence is obvious.

Responsibility for serving them, however, does not rest solely with those living in Turkey. Echoing Annie’s thoughts on the distance between the refugee crisis and the global church, Keaton challenged all believers to get involved: “Just because it’s happening on the other side of the world doesn’t mean it’s something we’re separate from. Anyone who wants to help can help.”

How to help

You can participate in meeting the needs of refugees by donating to OM Turkey (specify funds for the Refugee Crisis Response), reaching out to refugees living in your neighbourhood, and praying for the needs of displaced people around the world. Please pray for OM Turkey to continually abide in Jesus as they seek to serve and bear fruit among the refugee community in Turkey. Pray for God to provide the finances and volunteers for this ministry to continue.

Published: Thursday, 13 April 2017
Credit: Nicole James
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