Editor’s Note: This is an update on the Youth With a Mission Yosemite article which appeared in the Nov. 17, 2016 issue of The Sierra Star. The students who were studying and preparing in Oakhurst for their mission outreach to Greece returned from that ministry at the end of February.
“Where else in the world could you begin your day greeting someone in Greek, have a translator ask in French if someone in the refugee camp needs laundry soap and end your day joking with refugees using the few Farsi or Arabic words you know,” asked Rachel Miskowicz, one of the Youth With a Mission Yosemite staff members who accompanied 26 students on their journey to Greece where they spent three months ministering to refugees.
The students applied what they learned in three months of study at the Oakhurst-based Youth With a Mission (YWAM) base working mainly with refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran.
The YWAM Yosemite students split into two groups for the first five weeks, working in Athens with the Salvation Army and Alliance Relief, “a group of different Evangelical churches and ministries in Greece working together to help the refugees coming into Greece,” according to their website.
Photos taken by YWAM staffers show warehouses heaped with plastic bags of clothing. Many days were spent sorting through the clothing and categorizing it so that it could be distributed to the refugees.
“People say, ‘I’ll donate,’ but they don’t realize all of the steps in between before the clothing can actually get out to the refugees,” Miskowicz said.
The group also worked in day centers where refugees could take a shower, launder clothes, or enjoy a cup of tea and conversation with the volunteers who hoped to make a ministry connection. The centers provide a safe place for refugee children to play and the volunteers were able to provide day care for the children, play board games with the refugees and perform cleaning tasks in their mission to establish relationships and friendships with the refugees.
The group preached in the streets over Christmas and New Year’s and they played their guitars on the streets to “spread the love of Jesus and the truth of the gospel,” Miskowicz said.
Large stadium events that began with dinner and skits, and concluded with a gospel message and testimonies from refugees who had converted to Christianity, were also part of the Athens ministry.
These events, coordinated in conjunction with Hellenic Ministries, were attended by 2,000 refugees and resulted in 45 of those refugees accepting Jesus, according to Miskowicz.
The YWAM Yosemite students and staff were a part of a larger contingent of 300 YWAMers all in Athens at the same time. They held corporate worship sessions and worked in “squat camps,” abandoned hotels and apartment buildings where refugees find shelter outside of the official government run camps.
YWAM Yosemite staffer Josh Anderson spearheaded construction of rooftop garden containers at a squat camp in an abandoned elementary school, providing a way for the refugees to establish sustainable agriculture.
During the last five weeks in the country, the group again split in two with 12 traveling to Thessaloniki and 14, including Miskowicz, traveling to the Moria Detention Center on the island of Lesvos.
A storm, the week before their arrival, left the center under a two-foot blanket of snow. Miskowicz estimates there were about 4,000 refugees in this camp built to house 1,000. Photography in this government sanctioned camp was not allowed and the volunteers entered the camp each day showing their IDs at the gate.
In the camp, volunteers worked with refugees from the countries listed previously but additional cultures were also represented. Some 40 nationalities including those of Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Dominican Republic, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Algeria meant the volunteers had to work with refugees from very diverse cultures.
YWAMers became known as the “clothing people” as they distributed shoes and 1,000 coats while they were there. The goal was to get to each tent in the camp on a weekly basis assessing needs and matching resources. They played soccer with refugees, distributed heaters and worked within the camp to find space for additional refugees.
“Although conditions could not be described as humane,” Miskowicz said, “there were no other options. There were frustrations and questions and the feeling (among the refugees) that they had no authority over their own lives.”
Situations in the camp changed on an hourly and daily basis. There were camp riots, three men died in the camp from carbon monoxide poisoning and there were vulnerable women who had been trafficked before they arrived in the camp.
An early call to YWAMers before their shift was to begin let them know they were needed to assist in a one-day evacuation of the camp, because the government wanted to clear the land to move the refugees to shipping container homes. No one in the camp would sleep in tents that night.
“We ended up moving a third of them,” Miskowicz said. “Many of the tents had been reinforced with foam insulation that had been sprayed on the walls. We had to jump on them to break them down.”
Miskowicz was proud of all the students who raised above all the challenges, transforming into extraordinary missionaries.
“We were able to offer a listening ear and a kind heart,” Miskowicz said. “Our students stepped up, leaning on each other and the Lord. Together they rocked it. As missionaries we were able to carry joy where there is none and to carry the light.”