A guest post by Maria Andrawis
During the time of persecution in Egypt, when Christianity was still illegal and the Roman army was known to severely torture and kill Christians in the country, a young pagan named Pachomius was conscripted to the Roman Army, headed to Thebes.
When the ship arrived in Thebes, the residents of this Christian village, upon seeing their occupiers and the soldiers who were possibly coming to kill them, came out and provided food, water, and attended to the needs of the soldiers instead of running away. Pachomius was so touched by the compassion of the villagers he started to become curious about Christianity and the Jesus they followed.
Pachomius eventually became a Christian and is now known as the father of cenobitic monasticism – the monastic movement in which monks and nuns live in community and serve those around them. So every order of monks and nuns around the world who teach in schools, serve the poor and destitute, care for orphans, provide for the needs of local communities – all have partial roots in the movement started by this man.
My father used to tell me this story when I was young, and it’s come back to me recently in light of the work I do and the events I see on the world stage happening around me. The story comes to me as I grapple with the question, “who is my enemy, and who is my neighbor?” In our discussions of national security, safety, and even local community relations, how we answer this question matters, since it justifies the behavior and stance we take towards others. And it’s a question that helped lead me to Greece, where I work with an NGO focused on serving those affected by the global refugee crisis. Professionally, I collect and analyze information about who is coming to Greece, what their needs are, and how we can best serve them. Much of my time is also spent visiting and socializing with families, providing material, informational, or other support as needed.
The other story I think about comes from the Gospel of Luke chapter 10. The parable of the Good Samaritan is provided as an answer to the question, “who is my neighbor?” The answer Jesus gives is about a foreigner who the Jews considered an enemy, who puts himself in a dangerous situation by choosing to help the man by the side of the road, in the same area where bandits may still be hiding. As I consider this Samaritan, and think of the villagers in Pachomius’ time, I wonder how they might answer that question.
My guess is, they would say that, for the Christian, it doesn’t really matter – the danger they pose is the same to you as an individual, and the command to love them is the same.
We seem to be living in a world where we often view our neighbors as our enemies – we live side by side with them, but don’t speak with them, don’t trust them. We do it locally, and we do it globally. We allow fear to answer this question for us.
The friends I have met here in Greece have taught me differently. They hail from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and a host of other locations that are deemed the “enemies” of my home country. They’ve suffered unspeakable horrors at the hands of those who were thought to be their neighbors – losing parents, siblings, children, spouses. Of those who survived, they spend years separated from loved ones, perhaps permanently. Much of the difficulties come from the experience of being a refugee, sometimes even more so than the suffering they left behind in their home countries. Last week, a gentleman named Abu Hassan (name changed) who resides in one of Greece’s many camps told me, “The hardest time of my life – even worse than the war in Syria – has been living in this camp.” When I asked further what he meant by this, he told me how so
much of life in a camp is waiting – waiting for food at the distribution line, waiting for your turn for the clothing selection, waiting for your asylum appointment – the waiting and competition for resources makes people turn on each other and can bring out the worst in people. It’s also discouraging to find your life on hold – unable to work, to send your kids to school, to continue your education, provide for your family – while also in dire conditions, after everything they’ve gone through to get to this place.
But despite this trauma, and despite often seeing the worst in each other and the worst from locals who do not want them in their country, they have taught me what it means to be a neighbor to strangers. By being forced to share harrowing journeys in squalid conditions, I’ve seen how those who were previously strangers adopt each other as family – the Syrian Christian family who takes in an elderly Muslim woman who’s on her own, a Kurdish single mom with three kids who shares meals with the Cameroonian woman who lives in her room, the young men who meet on the boat and become a household until they’re each sent to a different country through relocation. I’ve also seen those who previously would have never interacted together because of race, religion, language, and nationality, bond over football tournaments, advocate for each other’s benefits within a camp, and become communities that can transcend all those things by which they are defined as refugees.
In my time here, I’ve also gotten the blessing of being adopted into these families as well. My favorite part of my time in Greece is being able to share in the struggles and joys of those who have lost so much – the privilege of being able to say that they are my neighbors and friends in sharing a meal with them, spending an evening playing cards, listening to them nostalgically joking about their home countries during a power outage, or hearing stories of their homes and families. There’s something sacred in the give and take, and becoming neighbors and family with strangers, even if it’s fleeting, since in the end, every community that’s formed in this context will pass. Families will move to different camps, different countries; volunteers will go back to their home countries. It’s known that no unit is permanent, but that doesn’t take away from the sacredness of being able to live in community in the present in that context.
Everyone is always asking me what the best way is to “help” refugees. I struggle with the answer, because they need so much – there’s the food, the clothing, employment opportunities; however the thing I hear time and again is, “we want a home.” Home means so much – it’s safety, it’s stability, it’s belonging, it’s knowing that there’s a group of people who will claim you as “one of us”, and defend you as such. They want to be neighbors, not refugees – indefinite strangers in a strange land, forever waiting for someone to accept them and support them as they rebuild their lives. At the beginning of my time in Greece, as I was getting to know a young woman named Amal (named changed). We were exchanging numbers and she saw that I had recorded her name as “Amal, XXX camp”. “Oh no, don’t write that,” she told me. “I hate it when people do that – it makes me feel like I’m only a refugee to them.” That day Amal taught me that one of the best ways we can help refugees is by being aware of how we perceive them – if we perceive them as “beneficiaries”, “risks”, “the needy,” or a host of other words that we can use. But what if the word was changed to, “neighbor,” and “friend”?
It’s my prayer that as we grow in our understanding of what it means to be a neighbor, and see strangers and even those who we may fear as neighbors, we’d be able to experience the grace that comes from the Great Commandment of loving God, and loving my neighbor.
A native of the Washington DC metro area, Maria works in international relief with a focus on supporting populations in the Middle East. She’s currently living in Greece, working with an international NGO and volunteering with local ministries that are addressing the refugee crisis in the country. The photos in this post are from the camps she has visited, and the post and photos are (c) Maria Andrawis 2017. If you would like to learn more about how to help refugees in Greece, contact Maria on Twitter @mariaandrawis.
Did you enjoy this post? Subscribe to my email newsletter and receive a free reflection and planning tool PLUS free printable adult coloring pages.