My refugee story

Ideomeni Camp April 2017

Photo by Ashley Wiley photography

That’s me. At Idomeni refugee camp in April, 2016. We were distributing aid to families with small children. I’m wearing a hijab that had been placed on my head by the refugee version of me.

First, where and what was the Idomeni Refugee Camp?

In 2015, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia decided to guard its borders by military forces in order to prevent the refugees from entering the country, as Serbia also closed its borders. Thus Idomeni became a vast camp, where many refugees entering Greece abide. The peak number of refugees who stayed in Idomeni numbered more than 15,000.[10] On the 24th of May 2016, Greek authorities began relocating refugees from the Idomeni camp to processing facilities mostly in and around Thessaloniki.[11]


We were distributing aid on behalf of Carry The Future in this vast informal camp. People were everywhere. Children were everywhere. It was spring, muddy, and smelled like campfires.

Our team was struggling to distribute what we had in a fair and orderly way. There were only four of us. Our rental van, which was full to the ceiling of aid, had doors on all four sides that didn’t lock. IT DIDN’T LOCK. This became a problem when boys (who were bored and looking for any way to help their own families) figured this out and started getting into the van.

About the same time, I met a woman who reminded me of myself. First, she was wearing a navy hijab (head covering) with  little white dots along the border. I love navy and I rarely see navy hijabs in my region. She was smiling as she waited in line for her turn with us. We immediately started chatting in my limited Arabic and her limited English.

Right away, I wanted to be her friend. We clicked. Have you ever met someone and known right away that you would be friends? I couldn’t chat long because of the work we were doing and those boys at the van creating a dangerous situation.

Then, her husband came to our rescue. He was tall and dressed in casual business clothes. With a smile, he appeared at the rear of our van, declared his presence, shooed away the boys, and stayed. He told us he would wait and guard the van while we finished our work. I protested that we would be there at least four more hours. “Sure, sure, no problem” he insisted. He stayed. This was no small thing.

At that point in time, many organizations had stopped distributing aid at Idomeni because it was so dangerous. When 15,000 people are desperate, cold, hungry, and feel marginalized, it can be very dangerous to drive up with only enough aid for 50 people and attempt to give it out without causing a frantic stampede.

My friend’s husband prevented any of this. His calm, authoritative, and Arabic speaking presence was enough to keep away the danger.

We were tired. We skipped lunch. It was getting hot. We wanted to take a break. But how could we? This family, who’s only crime was wanting to stay alive and provide a better live for their baby, was helping us. So we pushed on.

Then she brought us coffee. SHE BROUGHT US COFFEE. And sugar. And MILK. Where did she even get milk or sugar? All these people were living in tents with very few belongings. And she brought us her best. With a smile. Her hospitality was the most natural and over flowing thing in the world.

Then she brought me a head scarf. I gently explained that I am a Christian and I didn’t want to insult anyone by wearing a hijab. She laughed and insisted “This is for fashion, here, let me.” This kindred soul wrapped my head in a scarf and proclaimed me beautiful. We hugged. I forced back the tears.

I never saw her again.

I don’t know what happened to her husband or her baby. Of course I think of them often, and pray for them each time. In my mind, her name is ‘Navy’, and her husband has found work, and that baby is growing fat and healthy. In my heart, she is the Syrian me, with her family, drinking coffee.

The only difference between her life and mine is that I was lucky enough to be born in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. And of course, it’s 100% likely that I have just as much refugee in my family tree as she does.


What will you do for World Refugee Day, June 20?


*There are more stories that I can recount of individual encounters…continual hospitality served up in cold tents with rocky floors. I could go on forever about the amazing women I had the pleasure to serve alongside. I can’t shut up about dear friends who uprooted their whole lives to permanently serve with what God has given them. We all must do the thing we can to serve others.

What is your thing?

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