My friend went to Greece and the Syrian refugee crisis became personal

It wasn’t until mid-October when the Syrian refugee crisis became more than a far removed idea for me. My friend, Ryan Thomas, called to tell me he was moving to Greece for three months to help the Syrian refugees.

I froze at these words.

I was paralyzed with fear for him.

Two days later we prayed over our lunch and for his safety before he packed a bag of clothes and headed to Greece. Suddenly this far removed idea became very close to home for me. One of my best guy friends that I have known since seventh grade was going to help strangers escape amounts of violence I will never be able to fathom.

A few days before Ryan left, he talked about the types of trauma he was trying to prepare his mind and heart for. I can remember him mentally preparing for a war zone.

“Going into the trip I was prepared for the worst,” Ryan told me via recently via text messaging. “I thought I would see dead bodies every day, mothers crying over their dead children, but the compassion in my heart trumped the fear of the trauma.”

I’ve spoken with him a few times since he arrived a few weeks ago, and his passion for these people is apparent. He has told me about days of playing a soccer game with a professional soccer player and he has talked about people wanting to take a selfie with him on his phone. He has talked about people very similar to the kind that I interact with daily in America.

I began this semester at VoiceBox Media writing about how my personal opinion had changed in the first few weeks of my internship. Through our reporting on Central American refugees this semester, my eyes were opened to the difficulties refugees face, but we are in a time where refugees fleeing Syria has flooded our air waves and minds for months now. The problems in Syria only seem to be worsening for the time being and the flood of fleeing refugees is growing by the day.

Until Ryan went to Greece, this thought of thousands upon thousands of people fleeing a country deemed unsafe because of violence was nothing more than a removed idea from my brain.

“Americans can’t imagine what it is like to have to leave your home and livelihood because of heavy violence,” an employee of Dilley’s Family Residential Center told me on one of our recent reporting trips. To protect her job, she wishes to remain anonymous. “We can’t understand these people’s situations because many of us will never know that kind of violence.”

This point struck a chord with me. How can we relate and make personal stances so quickly on a situation we cannot fully understand? I pondered on this conversation for a week or so and then carried on about my daily routine, choosing to ignore a lot of the radiant opinions of people around me on TV, on campus or at home.

Ryan said his biggest take away in his first few weeks of being in Greece is to show people that a whole ethnic group isn’t bad because a few in their race are causing inexcusable terror.

“I think my worldview has changed,” he said. “But my desire to see people giving hope has only grown.”

Rufugees and volunteers play together as new friends.

Refugees and volunteers play together as new friends. Photo taken and provided by Ryan Thomas at a refugee camp in Greece.

He doesn’t speak of being unsafe. He doesn’t speak of being scared.

“It wouldn’t be fair if every American was viewed as a possible shooter because of the people who have shot up schools and movie theaters within the country, would it?” he texted. “I think I’ve come to the realization that I’m just as safe in a refugee camp as I would be in a movie theater in Colorado.”

Through text message, I asked Ryan some questions about his personal experience in Greece. Perhaps these are questions you’ve wondered too. Here are his unedited answers:

What were your thoughts as you left the U.S. to help the refugees?

“Even though I was in a situation where my career was beginning to cultivate and, a part from that, I had a couple reasons to remain in America after doing research and studying the crisis in depth, I decided in my heart that it’s not enough to pray for the brokenness of the world and pray for the crisis to be ended, because I have the ability to do something about it.

Going into the trip I was prepared for the worst. I thought I would see dead bodies every day, or mothers crying over their dead children, but the compassion in my heart trumped the fear of the trauma. When I heard that refugees at the camp were asking ‘where are the Christians?’ so they could learn more about Jesus, I immediately began looking forward to giving them the hope that changed my life. I figured, even if I can’t fix all the problems, I can at least give them hope.”

How have your opinions changed since then?

“The more and more I encounter refugees, I’m shocked at how much I have in common with them. Meeting people who used to play professional sports, in high school with no parental supervision, and had the desire to take selfies just like I did, open my eyes to the reality that if Texas were to be a war zone the refugee in front of me could be me. Instead of being shocked by trauma, I’m shocked by the lack thereof. These people are beautiful people and are full of kindness and are willing to listen to any stories you want to tell, even the story of Jesus. With that being said, I think my worldview has changed, but my desire to see people giving hope has only grown.”

Have you been worried for your safety by these people or that Islam-terror groups might be around?

“Initially there were a few fears of terrorists coming out of nowhere and raiding the camps or even refuges being threats inside the camp. However, the more I engage with these people and experience how beautiful they are as an ethnic group, I AM disgusted with the fact that ever since 9/11 Middle Eastern people have been viewed as an enemy of my safety before evaluating the opportunity to gain a friend.

I’m not excusing the terrible things that terrorist groups have done, but I don’t think it’s fair to label a people according to the evil that some have done. For instance, it wouldn’t be fair if every American was viewed as a possible shooter because of the people who have shot up schools and movie theaters within the country, would it? I think I’ve come to the realization that I’m just as safe in a refugee camp as I would be in a movie theater in Colorado.”

When you encounter groups of refugees, how are they emotionally? Are they all traumatized or is there any hope left?

“The refugees are generally very kind and composed people. A lot of it probably has to do with the amount of destruction and terror that they have had to flee to get where we are. I heard one refuge say that if you could tell the world anything he would say that his country is a prison warning anyone who is thinking about going to turn around. Because of the mass destruction and oppression, sleeping in a tent is more peaceful than sleeping in a two story house in Syria.

Life jackets and inflatable rafts line the shores where thousands of refugees have climbed the shores of Greece, making it their next stop on a long journey.

Life jackets and inflatable rafts line the shores where thousands of refugees have climbed the shores of Greece, making it their next stop on a long journey. Photo taken and provided by Ryan Thomas

Apart from general health problems like hypothermia, broken/bruised bones, or pregnancy there isn’t much psychological trauma. Some people barely make it from the shore to our particular camp location, but when they get there we have all the resources we need to get them ready for the rest of their journey. So yes there is chaos and pain but through the camps and the ability to connect on a personal level, there is hope for these people every day.”

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