A Christian Collects Stories from Muslim Refugees

Christian mission trip

I want to go back to Afghanistan when it it safe; this is what I hope for. Everyone wants to go back to their home country.” This quote is one of many that Lauren Svatos collected for her book, “Stories Across the Sea”, which is a collection of 11 stories told by refugees while living in a refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece.

Each individual story paints a vivid picture of their life and the long journey that brought them to the island. The following interview with Lauren Svatos details her time in Lesvos, her views on Muslim-Christian understanding, as well as her experience as a Christian volunteering to help Muslim refugees.

Why did you decide to create “Stories Across the Sea?” and what does the book mean to you?

‘Stories Across the Sea’ was created by myself and 9 other women during our time serving in a refugee camp on the island of Lesvos, Greece. We spent a total of 9 weeks getting to know the refugees, their stories, hopes and dreams, and their fears.

Greatly impacted by each story and the generosity displayed inside the camp, we knew we couldn’t keep them to ourselves and only share them as a distant memory once we returned home.

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We wanted others to be impacted by the different journey’s each individual takes in order to escape their war-torn world. When we first dreamed up the ‘Stories Across the Sea’ and talked through the practicality of getting stories, it seemed like a great idea in theory, but I was afraid it would never leave the beginning stages of planning.

When the first copy of ‘Stories Across the Sea’ arrived, I may have shed a tear or two. Completing this book means that their stories can be told over and over again.

Was this your first experience volunteering internationally? Had you ever worked with refugees before? 

I am currently working for a Christian missions organisation that has provided many opportunities for me to serve in different capacities in various countries, but this was my first time serving in such a highly intensive environment.

I had also never worked with refugees before and knew very little about the crisis going into it.

How did working with the refugees affect you while you were in the camp, and after you left Greece? 

After the first few days of working in the camp, I never wanted to leave. Connecting with people, hearing their stories, being able to give out the few clothes that we had and providing new arrivals with housing; I wanted to serve in whatever capacity possible.

At the end of our shifts, it was hard saying goodbye as our friends would walk us out to the gate. Although we would be back again the next day, my heart broke standing on the outside looking in at the faces of my friends stuck in a hopeless situation.

Christian volunteer

Working in the camps brought many emotions, I experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows. There were many days that I was overwhelmed with the kindness shown to us.

Every morning the refugees waited in line for over an hour to be served a chocolate croissant, a piece of fruit and juice. On many occasions a friend offered me his croissant, his only one…

Their generosity left me speechless. Another day, a riot had broken out and all the volunteers were to told evacuate. Their first priority were the women volunteers, many of the male refugees made a tunnel for us to pass safely through to the nearest exit.

Every morning the refugees waited in line for over an hour to be served a chocolate croissant, a piece of fruit and juice. On many occasions a friend I made offered me his croissant, his only one…

Of course there were days that I was emotionally exhausted from the enormity of the crisis as we were unable to provide the necessities. I realised although we were giving everything we had, it still wasn’t enough.

Leaving the camp was one of the most difficult goodbyes I’ve ever had. The reality of me seeing or even knowing what the future holds for any of them was really small. Once I arrived back in England, I experienced reverse culture shock for the first time.

It was frustrating how everyone around me continued living life so unaffected by what was going on in Greece. As we are living in excess, thousands don’t have a bed to call their own. If I could go back tomorrow, I would do it in a heartbeat.

Were the majority of refugees Muslim? If so, how was it for you as a Christian to work with people in such desperate need who might not have followed your own religious beliefs? 

Muslim Christian understanding

That’s a difficult question to answer. I noticed the older generation within the camp would strongly identify as Muslim; however, the younger generation I would say were nominally Muslim.

I think when you encounter so much tragedy at a young age, this causes you to search deeper within yourself. I would imagine having your world turned upside down would pose a lot of questions and either solidify your belief in what you’re currently practicing or raise even more questions.

As Christians, we are to be a light in a dark place, to show compassion to the broken and the hurting. There was never an instance where I was unwilling to show love to a refugee because of their beliefs.

In a time of loss, frustration and confusion, it is the unconditional love and grace of Jesus Christ that is needed most. If I can be an extension of Christ’s love, may it be to those who need it most.

Do you think you were able to “build bridges” while spreading tolerance and love even though you were helping people who did not follow Christianity? 

To answer this question I would like to quote a refugee friend who helped me understand what happens when you’re willing to lay aside your own prejudice and listen to someone who believes differently than you.

He said, “I love all people, if I meet people I love them. But especially when I came here and met all the volunteers, they became my friends and I felt connected to the Christian people. Back in my country we had another picture of Christian people.

We only knew them from movies, they were all immoral, they drank alcohol and they killed people, but when I came here I saw how they really are. I realised that I had a wrong perspective on Christian people.

And maybe some Christians also have a different picture of the Muslim people, maybe they think that they are from the Taliban and that they kill people.

dsc_0379-2-3-copyThere were many times the refugees would thank us for spending our own money to fly over to Greece, give of our time and energy to serve them. It baffled them that we were willing to give so much to show them love.

And vice versa, my eyes were completely opened seeing the kindness and generosity shown to me even after they had lost everything. The love that I was able to show them was not out of my own strength, but from God.

Because of His great love for me, I am able to show others love. I’ve learned that I cannot build my worldview on assumptions, but I must seek out the truth myself.

What was the general response of the refugees when you asked if you could share their stories? 

Christian travel

We as a team decided early on that we would only ask the refugees to share their stories if we had built a friendship with them. We wanted to be sensitive to what they had experienced and we didn’t want them to feel exploited.

There were many times the refugees would thank us for spending our own money to fly over to Greece, give of our time and energy to serve them. It baffled them that we were willing to give so much to show them love. And vice versa, my eyes were completely opened seeing the kindness and generosity shown to me even after they had lost everything.

After we reassured them that their identity would be kept confidential, most were willing to relive their terrifying memories for us. I think prioritising their friendship over their stories was the best move we could have made and it showed we really cared about their well- being.

Extreme vetting and a “Muslim ban” is something being contemplated in America right now. What do you think about these policy proposals? Should Americans accept them?

I’d like to start off by saying I do think America needs to make adjustments concerning their immigration policies, but I do not believe a Muslim ban will be the solution.

As far as I’m aware, a Muslim ban would be unconstitutional according to the 1st amendment and therefore would bring more division not only in America, but also in our relationship with other nations.

What are some things people can do to help out during the refugee crisis? 

I believe the most important thing we can all do, myself included, is stay up-to-date on what’s happening around the world. Just because something is no longer making headlines does not mean it no longer exists.

I pray that our hearts won’t become desensitised to what is happening to our neighbours in the Middle East. Daily, refugees are arriving on the shores of Greece. May we be impelled by love to stand against the injustice.

Speaking more practically, you can donate money or unused clothing to different organisations. There are many NGO’s helping in the refugee crisis, the organisation I worked with (Euro Relief) provides tents, blankets and clothing with the donations they receive.

I pray that our hearts won’t become desensitised to what is happening to our neighbours in the Middle East. Daily, refugees are arriving on the shores of Greece. May we be impelled by love to stand against the injustice.

For those of you that are able to leave your nine to five job and serve in a refugee camp for a few months, I encourage you to do it! Being able to serve others is such an incredible experience and there is always a need for more volunteers.

What message would you want to share with people in the Middle East and West, who believe that a Christian cannot get along with a Muslim, and vice versa?

I think we often justify ourselves by focusing on our differences, which can keep us from looking past our own prejudices. As we continue to assume things about one another, it only creates larger divides between us.

Christian Muslim friends

I would like to encourage everyone, Muslim and Christian alike to see each other in our likeness. I’m reminded of when a volunteer had said to me as we played with the kids in the camp, “no matter where you are in the world, kids always play the same.

Everyday we are given a choice, we can choose to be kind to one another or we can be hostile. Let us choose to be kind and to prefer one another over ourselves.

I would like to encourage everyone, Muslim and Christian alike to see each other in our likeness. I’m reminded of when a volunteer had said to me as we played with the kids in the camp, “no matter where you are in the world, kids always play the same.

 

Quotes from “Stories Across the Sea”:

“8 of my friends, aged 17 and 18, died from that bomb. Everyday we carried our friends who had died. I left the military to return to my mother. Everyday I would cry about my friends. I would go to where we used to play soccer and nobody was there. I would be there alone.”

“After we paid him, he took my mother and I on a bus to the jungle where we stayed for 2 full days. We were by ourselves in the rain and snow. From there, we had a 2-hour taxi ride to the beach, where our boat and about 60 other people were waiting. I didn’t want to go in the boat because there were so many people, but I didn’t have a choice because the smuggler was pointing a gun at me.”

Christian and Muslim

“To forget what it is like in camp, I translate for the volunteers. When I first met them, it felt like family. However, it is really hard for me because they leave so soon. Sometimes I wish they never came because I miss them so much.”

“Being away from my family is the hardest thing because my youngest daughter is angry that I’m away. On the phone she asked me who would pick her up from school and all I could say is, “I would love to be there for you, but I can’t.” I still have hope that I will see them again.”

“I am from Afghanistan and I left my country because I had a different worldview from the rest of the people. Before I had a good life working as a doctor. My family and I had our own car, house and garden. If I had stayed, I would have been killed. I had to escape my country. It was never my desire to come to Greece.”

 

Purchase “Stories Across the Sea”

When purchasing Stories Across the Sea, a portion of the proceeds will be given to Eurorelief, an organisation who is trusted to work with and care for the refugees. Please click here to purchase the book.

 

Get in Touch with Lauren Svatos

headshotTo read more about Lauren Svatos and her activism as a Christian, please be sure to visit her website. Lauren was raised in Portland, Oregon and in the last few years moved to York, England to serve as a missionary.

She has been volunteering with YWAM (Youth With A Mission) since February 2015 where she has experienced God’s love for His people in many different countries. Lauren is a lover of coffee, photography and the great outdoors.

She is currently serving in different ministries in York and is preparing for another missions trip next Spring.

Whitney Buchanan

Whitney Buchanan

Middle East Collective Founder

Whitney Buchanan is an American analyst on Gender Issues and MENA Affairs, currently based between Cairo and Berlin. She is also the founder of the Middle East Collective.

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