Tim Stafford

Listening to Refugees' Stories

Relief, Hope, and Numbing Sadness

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This weekend, Gary Gnidovic and I will return to the US after two weeks in Europe. During our time here, we've interviewed quite a few refugees. We had our mouths gaping open in the beginning, because nearly all have dramatic stories of risk and suffering, arrest and imprisonment, and of course, vast uncertainty. I hate to say it, but by the end of our stay we could almost check things off the list: deprivation in Turkey, terror in the boat crossing to Greece, walking in the woods for days, running from police, lack of food, lack of shelter, and above all the terrible not-knowing what's coming next.

Near the end of our visit, however, we were at a refugee processing center near Sid, Serbia, with World Vision staff, watching as the buses rolled in and unloaded. They came from the Macedonian border, only a few days walk from Greece. I began talking to people as they got off the bus, especially those who spoke English. (World Vision provided Arabic and Farsi translation, but it's always easier to talk directly.) I walked up to one young man—30 or so, I would guess—and began asking him about himself. Where was he from? Afghanistan. What city? Herat. Why did he leave? The Taliban made life and work impossible. How was his crossing from Turkey to Greece?

At that his face fell, and he told me that from his boat of 90 people, 24 were drowned.

He could hardly speak. Nor could I. Later he showed me a printed list that he kept in an inside pocket of his jacket, listing the names of the 24 lost.

We can get used to hearing anything, but occasionally we get jerked back to reality. These people, many of them, are victims of incredible tragedy, which they will never forget even if we do.

Tim Stafford is the author of more than 20 books, both fiction and nonfiction, including Shaking the System: What I Learned from the Great American Reform Movements (InterVarsity Press).

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