(All media used with permission. With the current media ban we are unable to use any of our own photos from inside the camp.)
Being inside a refuge camp is like going to war knowing the battle might never end, or the end is nowhere near in sight. As a volunteer, you know you're supposed to help, but you only have three weeks to do...what, exactly? What can you do to stem the endless tide? Feed people, clothe them, set up a tent, hug their grubby children. It’s frustrating. This could end in a matter of weeks, but instead, everyone tells you that reality is more like months or even years.
Years. For those inside the camp, that means hundreds of days without being able to leave. Hundreds of days of fighting someone else for food, of showering in filthy water, of sitting around remembering the life that was left behind and the people who didn’t make it all the way.
If we’re talking hundreds of days, then this feels too big for me.
We came to volunteer as part of our three-months of DTS outreach. We've been working inside a refugee camp for a week now, logging eight-hour shifts almost every day, shifts that leave me more spent than anything I’ve ever done. I prepare myself for the tidal wave of emotions that suck me up, bash me around, and then spit me out at the end of every shift. “It’s very important to debrief as a team, to take time to process what has happened throughout the day and what you’re thinking and feeling.” That’s the advice almost everyone has given us, and I try to take it to heart.
“What’s it like inside?”
You can’t work for more than two hours handing out clothes or food without hearing someone’s story of rape and abuse, death and sorrow. I hold back tears after saying no for the fifteenth time to a man who wants shoes because we have run out already. I sit with the people in their tiny tents or overcrowded houses, and I hold their babies and take orders for clothes, and I can’t just help but feel choked up. They need to leave this place. They need a better home. I wish I could get them those magical papers that would get them out of here.
And then I get stuck on the outskirts of a massive fight around the food line, where men beat each other till they’re bloody because they’ve cut the amount of food that each family gets. People fight all around me, but I am safe. I’ve got a neon yellow vest over me, a badge that identifies me as a volunteer, and an American passport in my back pocket that means I can slip in and out of Greece and Europe and North America with no problem at all. Nobody will check to see if I’m seeking refuge. No one will question why I’m coming or going. No official or policeman will check a paper or deny me access into these countries that are safe. “Welcome to Greece, we hope you enjoy your stay.”
And that’s what hits me hard every single time.
I walked through the camp yesterday and had a sudden, overwhelming desire. I wanted to lay down on the filthy, cracked cement -- right there in the middle of everyone -- and see if I could feel God's steady heartbeat beneath the chaos. Are you here, God? I wanted to feel His pulse against my skin. I wanted the hammering of his heart to beat out all my doubts and frustration. Are you here, God?
I almost feel...bruised. This camp bruised me, these people have bruised me. It’s like humanity smacked me in the face and now its imprint is outlined faintly on my cheek, like all my blood rushed to the surface of my skin at the reality of who I’m interacting with every day, of the reality of what my eyes are taking in.
Let me be bruised.
"What’s it like inside?"
It’s awful and frustrating and precious all at once. I walk in taking deep breaths, and walk out feeling like someone punched the air out of my stomach. The people inside are the most beautiful. They welcome me, they laugh when I try to speak Arabic or Farsi, and they grab my hands and thank me over and over again when I hand them new clothes and shoes. The need in the camp leaves me feeling small and powerless. Watching the fights break out frustrates me to no end because I know that I would punch and yell and beg for one more piece of bread for my child, too.
The camp imprints you. Its burrowed deep into the cracks of my palms; it smells like human waste and tastes like dust. It sounds like conversations of people wanting to commit suicide or begging over and over again, shoes, shoes, shoes, shoes, shoes. It feels big and heavy and too much.
But my precious friend and student Camila said it so perfectly in a raw team debrief a few days back:
“It’s in those moments of tears and frustration, when you can’t do anything else and you have nothing to give, that you pull Jesus down in front of you and say, "Okay, I can’t do it, you need to walk before me." We can’t do it by ourselves. That’s the only way they will distinguish God in us amidst the craziness.”
Are you here, God?
If you want to experience God on a minute-by-minute basis, if you want your faith to come crashing down only to be rebuilt even stronger than before, I encourage you to volunteer in a refugee camp. Work in a hospital in the middle of Africa. Visit the slums in Asia. Join a mission program anywhere. Surround yourself with overwhelming need and human beings who kiss you on the cheek and cry in your lap and threaten to punch you when you can’t give them clothes. Because that’s where I feel Him most. It’s frustrating, and I point things out all the time and ask Him why, but He’s here nonetheless. He’s here. Here, here, here.
Go be bruised.
Because bruised is a physical reminder to keep going, bruised tastes like salty tears and sounds like the cry of millions of people without hope -- people who have no idea how long they’ll be stuck for or when they’ll be free.
Bruised, I’m all bruised. I’ll never not be bruised. But one thing I remember this past week is that God will never not have His hand on my tender cheek. I love when He runs His fingers over my black and purple flesh, tracing the outline that humanity stamped on me. I love it because He’s so soft, because He never inflicts pain. I can be surrounded by earthly pain, yet know that it has never and will never come from Him. I love Him because He’s promised that it’s not eternal, that one day this will all be restored, and bruises won’t stain my skin and grief won’t stain our world. One day.
But for now I wake up each day and head to the camp, singing quietly on the drive over. I hand out clothes to people and feel like Santa Claus -- a sweaty, ginger, Santa Claus who gives out second-hand t-shirts and shoes. I drink well water and eat sandwiches. I cry and get mad and laugh when the kids tickle me. I live and breathe and work in the camp, right alongside everyone else. And it’s beautiful.
I’m coming home bruised.
*Micah Madsen is Currently in Lesvos, Greece, co-leading a YWAM DTS outreach team while working at a massive refugee camp. 3,500 people inside from twenty-five different nations, all seeking life and freedom.
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