Living faith – action in the face of need
by Marion Van Driel
“I will continue as long as there’s need and as long as I’m able,” says Hannah*, who works to alleviate the suffering of refugees who have fled their homes to escape unbearable conditions, landing on the shores of her home – just off the Turkish coast – the island of Lesvos, Greece.
Born and raised in the Lower Mainland, Hannah – joined by her husband (of Greek origin) and their children – is taking a month off to enjoy extended family time and to rejuvenate.
When refugees started arriving on Lesvos around 2012, Hannah spearheaded her church’s contribution to dinner preparations with other organizations for an informal camp close to the airport where about 100 Syrian refugees were living (before the “huge onslaught”). Even before that, there was a group of Afghan men who lived nearby. “They had rented a place, or they were squatters, and I would just drop some food over the fence for them.”
An overwhelming tide of people
In 2015, when overwhelming numbers of Syrians came, Hannah’s heart went out to these displaced people. “I knew what it was like to be the foreigner,” she says. But she also felt so blessed to have a home, and a safe space. It was winter, and families would arrive in the morning, register, and then have to wait all day to board their ship in the evening. Lesvos was, at this time, simply a ‘processing point’ for the journey further into European countries. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could provide a warm space for them?” she asked.
The task seemed impossible – “the relentless numbers of people who came . . . we could see the boats coming across from our balcony; we could see this line of orange life vests along the coastline. We would help as we could. I was tutoring at the time, so I would volunteer in the morning, and be rushing off to make some income in the evening. It was all very tiring.”
At first, it was alleviating temporary needs – water, food, shelter, toilets. Hannah rallied her small church to become involved; they made food and shared it with the refugees flooding the island. She remembers one dire situation, where refugees were blocking roads and protesting from sheer despair because they were not being adequately cared for. It was becoming more and more stressful. When, one Sunday morning, a young woman introduced herself to Hannah as an MSF (Doctors Without Borders) worker, Hannah remembers the relief that flooded over her. God was bringing help!
As humanitarian aid began to arrive, Hannah volunteered with them, organizing an assembly line that included her kids – to fill bags with emergency supplies, helping clean out camp toilets and interpreting. She helped aid workers make local connections to begin their project.
With the help of a local Christian organization, Hannah procured a small day shelter where people could rest out of the elements. The first day the centre opened, she found a Yazidi family at the harbour, huddled under a pile of blankets on the cold concrete. “They were exhausted because they’d come across at night on the boat. It’s horrible. They’d been processed and they were exhausted and it was cold and it was snowing. I said, ‘Come, come!’ They didn’t speak English, and they followed me…they sat down in the space we had…we’d just put carpet down, there was a toilet with no door, just a curtain…they napped and relaxed and had tea…and access to a toilet. I didn’t have a license to serve food…it was just impromptu. This was the start of the response to what I’d seen the previous winter as well – people warming their hands over a can they’d built a fire in.”
Tiring and chaotic
They ran the centre over the winter, as long as it was needed. “It was tiring,” she admits, “but the need was great.”
When things became chaotic through sheer numbers of young men relocating from a recently-closed anarchist centre, locals became justifiably anxious. “When any organization does work to aid a situation, you have to be very, very aware of the local community.” Hannah began conversations, which eventually led to the centre’s closing.
Were there times she wanted to quit? She looks thoughtful. “There were times,” she laughs, “when I didn’t want to see another refugee, I didn’t want to listen to another aid worker story, … there were many times … and then I would go away. I remember going across the island to the beach for a few days … I just needed to be away from that and not think about it.”
The faithfulness she has shown is being passed on through generations. The kids at their church loved to come together to make sandwiches for the refugees; Hannah’s own daughter, after volunteering, admitted how frivolous her conversations with her friends are in light of this situation. Her faithfulness is strengthened by fellow-Christians and the people she’s met. “When you work together as a team, you hold each other up,” she muses. She recalls being worried about provisions for her ideas. Some young men at the church said to her, “Hannah, just move forward with your ideas! God will provide.” And he always has. Incredible people with talents and skills have entered her life; one refugee family who spent the day with them said, “This is the first time we’ve been treated as humans on this trip.”
Today, Hannah’s years of volunteerism has resulted in a full-time job in one of the nearby camps for families, which houses some 12,000 people. “This experience has solidified my faith – not diminished it. It’s been a way for me to learn that I need to live my faith. It’s a living thing. I had an opportunity because of what happened in front of me.” She adds that Jesus didn’t just sit in discussion with his disciples. He also went out, ministering to the needy crowds.
Hannah’s upbringing, education (BA in Linguistics, B Ed.) and circumstances have dove-tailed into her calling. She continues the road that God has put her on, dependent on His provision for each step of the journey – a long one – in the same direction.
*Identified by first name only for political/religious reasons.