As Europe struggles with a flood of migrants, Seventh-day Adventist believers from across the continent are stepping up efforts to feed, shelter, educate, and otherwise help refugees establish better lives.
European leaders are grappling to deal with the surge of migrants, mainly Syrians, who have made their way to Europe this summer. Many migrants are stuck in entry-point countries on the edges of the continent as authorities tackle a backlog of asylum applications.
Greece’s migration policy minister warned Monday that the Greek isle of Lesbos near Turkey is “on the verge of an explosion” because of the influx of 20,000 Syrian and Afghan migrants. In the same region, an unprecedented 7,000 Syrian migrants arrived in Macedonia on Monday, hoping to cross into Serbia and then Hungary before making their way to preferred destinations such as Austria and Germany.
“Refugees are really exhausted when they reach Serbia,” said Igor Mitrović, ADRA’s country director in Serbia, who helped open an asylum information center in the capital, Belgrade, in late August. “They often say that the experiences along the way — the abuse, the extortion of money, the near-death situations, and simple hopelessness — turned out to be worse than the destruction and bullets at home.”
Adventists at the Frontlines
Adventists working with ADRA, the Adventist relief agency, are at the frontlines of the migrant crisis. The Croatia and Slovenia branches of ADRA have been actively collecting in-kind donations for refugees in Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia. A train car carrying 10 tons of humanitarian aid was sent to Serbia, while 2.5 tons was delivered free of charge to Lesbos by Adria Airways, the national air carrier of Slovenia.
Church members from various congregations; church organizations; and local chapters of ASI, a membership-based organization of Adventist laypeople, also are giving money and in-kind donations to settle refugees in various parts of Europe.
“I encourage our members to check with their local church leaders and ADRA offices about ongoing plans and initiatives,” Rafaat Kamal, TED President said. “If there are not any, I encourage them to initiate and actively support ADRA and the church.”
The migrant crisis has brought back many memories to Kamal, who grew up in Lebanon during its 1975-1990 civil war. He lost family and friends in numerous attacks on his village. At one point, a rocket slammed into his house, destroying a floor. Kamal left Lebanon in 1984 to pursue business and theology studies at Newbold College of Higher Education, an Adventist institution in Britain.
“Migrants are frightened and homeless, and many have witnessed unspeakable horrors,” Kamal said. “We must help them. It is our human and Christian duty.”
Newbold College is among the Adventist organizations taking steps to help migrants. It will send two minibuses with volunteer church members and students on a 4 ½-hour trip to the French port of Calais, where thousands of migrants are camping in hope of receiving asylum in Britain, said Alastair Agbaje, the college’s chaplain and dean of men as well as the part-time community services director for the Trans-European Division. The group will distribute food parcels, clothes, and water over a weekend in October.
In addition, Newbold College is setting up a donation webpage where people can contribute to various refugee-oriented initiatives that the college intends to announce in the coming weeks.
In Germany, ADRA is working with 12 other groups under an umbrella organization, Aktion Deutschland Hilft, to collect money and in-kind donations, said Andreas Mazza, a spokesman for the Inter-European Division, which represents 20 European countries, including Germany, Austria, and Italy.
In Italy, ADRA is distributing food, clothes, and other forms of assistance in the Sicilian port of Palermo, a project that started last year.
"On september 21, all ADRA Directors in Europe will meet and set up a common strategy to cope with the migrant crisis", so Mazza.
Austria’s Adventists Work Overtime
Adventist work with refugees is especially active in Austria, where multiple churches have expanding refugee programs. The Austrian branch of ADRA, focusing on the longer-term integration of refugees, has mobilized church members with the support of the Adventist Church’s Austrian Union to assist refugees, said Corinna Wagner, who oversees communications and projects for ADRA Austria.
As a result, the Adventist church in Mödling, located about 9 miles (14 kilometers) south of Vienna, has offered private lessons to local migrant children struggling with their homework for the past two years. “Many children have difficulty following the curriculum because of language problems, and their parents cannot really support them,” Wagner said. The initial turnout of five children at the weekly lessons has grown to about 20. The children also receive a free lunch, engage in sports, and are invited to go on excursions like hiking trips and ice-skating.
In Vienna, ADRA operates a community center that initially opened for homeless people but is now filled with refugees. The community center distributes food donations from supermarkets, provides a free weekly breakfast, and offers practical support on which social service to approach for which kind of assistance. It recently started offering German-language classes. “Several refugees from countries like Syria and Ukraine are helping our Adventist volunteers with the weekly breakfast for the homeless people,” Wagner said. “This is a nice sign of integration and their personal involvement!”
In Villach, church members care for refugees in their area by collecting clothing and secondhand furniture to help new arrivals get established in apartments. ADRA supports the refugees with stipends for language courses and covers their bus fares to attend. In Braunau/Bogenhofen, church members got involved a year ago by visiting a refugee center. The first contacts grew when they helped the refugees to fix up a huge former monastery garden to plant vegetables. The church members have visited other refugee centers since then, and they now offer language courses, invite refugees on picnics, hold knitting groups, teach nutrition classes, and offer help in looking for work, finding and furnishing apartments, and obtaining used strollers.
In St. Veit, young adults have just formed a Caregroup organization after establishing regular contact with the main refugee arrival center. The Adventists receive feedback about which items are urgently needed and set out to collect donated materials and money to meet those needs.
In the Wienerwald area, the local ADRA leader is part of a political coordination committee for the integration of refugees. Local church members care for arriving families and assist them in integrating. In Innsbruck and Bruck an der Mur, church members regularly bring secondhand clothing to local refugee centers.
At least two Adventist churches in Austria currently are considering a request from ADRA to house refugees in empty rooms in their church buildings. “We hope and pray that this will work out,” Wagner said. “Other churches also are contacting us now. They want to help, too.”