I clutched slips of paper scrawled with the names and ID numbers of four people whose applications for asylum had been processed to the next stage.
I needed to find them, quickly.
This was my first task on my second day of working in the refugee camp on the island of Lesvos.
I glanced at my phone. I had 15 minutes.
I shot out of the volunteer’s office, a shipping container with no windows, into the courtyard crowded with men, a few women, and numerous small children running around.
One man I recognized from the day before caught my eye.
“Move,” he said as I rushed past.
“That’s great,” I replied with a big smile. He didn’t smile back. “Why not,” I wondered.
I looked at his wife, standing behind him. Again I was struck by the beauty of her high cheekbones and olive skin. A simple black scarf covered her hair. Her growing stomach protruded delicately from her long black dress.
She stared at me. Her vacant, sad expression told me more was going on than a language barrier.
I had no time to think about these young, soon-to-be parents.
The sun burned my neck as I climbed the steep hill that took me to Level 2 housing. Here I would find the first person I needed to inform about the next step—going to Athens. My task to find four people took way longer than fifteen minutes.
Yet, throughout the morning, the woman and her husband haunted my thoughts.
By mid-afternoon, a realization dawned on me.
The couple had not come to give me good news that their request from the day before to be moved to secure accommodation for vulnerable families had been granted. Instead, this man had come to plead with me again on behalf of his wife. He and his eight-month pregnant wife shared a tent elsewhere in the camp. It was no place to raise a baby.
I had had met they during my first few hours of working at the camp’s information desk. A refugee volunteering as a Farsi translator stood by my side. He explained their need.
They waited as I entered the office. The door slammed behind me. Inside, one woman sat at a desk with a laptop. She kept track of who lived where and who could move where.
“Did she look very pregnant?” “It is hard to tell,” I said, “she’s behind the counter.” We poured over the scans and notes from the doctor. In the pictures the baby seemed barely visible – not the size of an eight-month unborn child you would expect to see.
Their names were added to a list posted on the wall.
I had let this couple down.
I know what it’s like to move country with a newborn. We sold our house and, with our four-week old baby, moved in with friends and family for two weeks before we boarded a plane to the USA. On arriving in America, we stayed in a hotel. Those weeks were hard.
Yet, I had a comfortable bed, not a mattress in a makeshift tent. My child slept in a travel cot. This couple had nowhere to lay their baby. I had running water in which to wash my child, and a constant supply of diapers and baby wipes from the supermarket. This woman would have to go to a communal washroom and line-up each morning to receive a few diapers and wipes, barely enough to last the day and night.
My heart sank.
Like any new parents, they were desperate to prepare well for the birth of their child.
Their faces haunted me.
I wondered how long this couple had been in the camp. Had she conceived there? Had she recently arrived and made the journey already with child?
What situation had been so bad they had risked everything to take the perilous journey to Greece? What had given them no other choice but to be in this refugee camp?
They will struggle those first few days, weeks, and months to nurture their child in conditions barely fit for adults let alone a newborn baby.
I prayed: “Lord, forgive me for not seeing their dire need on that first morning. Step in and bring them to the attention of another volunteer.”
I know we have a Savior who cares. He experienced a similar bleak beginning in this world. Yet, we are to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
When we help people who are in need it is as if we are doing it for Jesus.
And, when we neglect to follow through Jesus said:
Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.
Matthew 25:45 (NIV)
I will never know what happens to this couple.
I an not returning to Lesvos any time soon, but it doesn’t mean I can’t do anything.
From a distance, I can provide for them and their baby born into the wretched world of a refugee camp. When diapers and baby wipes are handed out each morning, I can help ensure each parent has enough for the day.