Posted: 6/10/20 at 1:00pm. Written by Will Cumbia.
It’s astonishing how quickly the world can change. Looking back, it is almost difficult to remember what the world looked like before the COVID-19 crisis. In only a matter of months, our reality has completely changed along with any certainty of what the future may look like.
Though the present circumstances are very different, much of our global experience sounds familiar to me: disruption, displacement, fear, distance, uncertainty, pain, innovation, prayer. These are the themes that run consistently through the stories of refugees with whom I have the privilege to interact. The rest of the world is only now getting a taste of the reality of the world’s millions of displaced people.
In these difficult days, we have much to learn from refugees. Many refugees have had to live creatively and innovatively for years in order to survive. Faced with constant uncertainty and no promise of security, safety, or health, refugees have had to build up incredible stores of resilience. For many refugees, this resilience is drawn from deep wells of faith and prayer. Refugees around the world hold profound wisdom that testify to the tenacity of the human spirit when faced with hardship.
Yet, refugees, especially those recently displaced and on the way, are particularly vulnerable in this time of global pandemic. BGAV’s focus:refugees mission partners are continuing to tirelessly serve refugees even in the midst of crisis.
Lebanon: A Crisis Within a Crisis
The Lebanese Baptists are accustomed to trusting God in the middle of uncertain circumstances. From 15 years of civil war to foreign occupation to hosting millions of Syrian refugees to recent mass government protests and economic crisis, the COVID-19 crisis is just the latest occurrence in a string of challenging circumstances. Indeed, the Lebanese Baptists are well practiced in trusting in God as their constant no matter how difficult the reality.
During the lockdown, Baptists did their best to continue to serve their communities through the work of the Lebanese Society for Education and Social Development (LSESD). MERATH, the relief and aid branch of LSESD continues to work tirelessly through the crisis to distribute food and hygiene materials to vulnerable refugees and other marginalized groups within Lebanon.
Though there were relatively few cases reported within refugee communities, the squalid conditions within which many refugees live exposes the inability to contain the virus should it spread.
While public health remains an important area of concern, it is the economic repercussions of the global pandemic that presses more heavily on the Lebanese. Before the health crisis hit, Lebanon was already experiencing one of its worst economic crises in decades, including widespread unemployment. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the situation, causing the value of the Lebanese pound to plummet and prices for goods to skyrocket. These developments will continue to especially impact refugees and other vulnerable people as the purchasing power of what little they have decreases.
The next months will be extraordinarily challenging for our brothers and sisters in Lebanon. Yet, they continue to ground their hope in a resurrected king, trust in God’s grace, and remain steadfast in serving and uplifting the least of these. For the Lebanese Baptists, dark days are an opportunity for Christ’s Church to shine brighter.
Croatia: Shaken Foundations
At 6:30am on March 22, 2020, Croatia was hit by a 5.3 magnitude earthquake. Only days into government ordered lockdown, the country was rattled. Even in the midst of crisis, the Croatian Baptists doubled down on their mission of preventing human suffering and serving those in need. While travel across the border into neighboring Bosnia was limited, this meant serving the elderly in their community and caring for refugees in a refugee housing center in Zagreb. Though COVID-19 has been a challenge within Croatia, the situation of refugees across the border in Bosnia is dire.
Croatian Baptists shared in an update that migrants and refugees in Bosnia “…are faced with serious barriers in access to basic aid, as well as a limbo in the justice department, unfavorable socio-economic status, not knowing the language, and a lack of cultural knowledge which is key to understanding the predicament they are in. All this makes their situation alarming.” Croatian Baptists are working tirelessly to address the needs of refugees inside and outside camps in Bosnia, especially through setting up adequate hygiene centers. Though they are working tirelessly, they are at risk of burnout as COVID-19 has led to a severe lack of volunteers and human resources to address the magnitude of the situation.
Toma Magda, director of Croatian Baptist Aid, reflected on the situation, saying, “With this ministry, with the acts of mercy we do and show in various situations, we are allowing God to use us in the building of his Kingdom on earth. Even though we are faced with challenges from all sides, we are grateful for the opportunity to be hand in hand with our Lord, sharing his yoke and his burden.”
Austria: Distance and Patience
For many refugees in Austria, prolonged waiting is simply a fact of life. From the first instance of applying for asylum in Austria, refugees can wait up to three to four years before hearing a definitive answer about their asylum status. COVID-19 has already delayed this process even further as asylum hearings have been delayed or even canceled. Community then is vital to survive in this in-between space.
For most refugees, building virtual community was already a fact of life before COVID-19. Many refugees not only have family back in their home country, but scattered along the way. I know one man that has family in Afghanistan, Turkey, Iran, Greece, Germany, and Sweden, most of whom he has not seen in years. Digital contact was already crucial to survival. COVID-19 has made these distance relationships even more challenging as refugees have had to watch situations unfold from afar, especially where the virus hit hard, such as Iran. Many lost friends and loved ones.
While in-person community is still limited in Austria, the Austrian Baptists have worked hard to maintain connection and community for refugees in the time of crisis, through weekly digital church services, digital Bible studies, and check-in calls. However, as many churches are realizing, though digital contact with communities is a gift, it has its limitations. As society slowly begins to reopen, the Austrian Baptists will face many challenges in caring for refugees whose already precarious mental health situations have worsened by the added stress and isolation of the global pandemic.
Richmond, VA: Serving Refugees at Home
While our Baptist partners abroad work hard to serve refugees, Virginians at home are working diligently to serve refugees in this time as well. ReEstablish Richmond, our non-religious non-profit partner in central Virginia, continues to connect resettled refugees to relevant resources and support refugees so they can thrive in their new homes. ReEstablish moved some of their regular trainings online, such as virtual driver education courses, provided emergency rent assistance to those who lost wages, and compiled a wealth of online resources and translated information to ensure that refugees can stay up to date on the COVID-19 situation. The ReEstablish Richmond staff and networks of volunteers continue to advocate for recently resettled refugees and ensure that they are as well equipped as possible to face the unfolding crisis. ReEstablish Richmond’s annual World Refugee Day events will consist of a series of virtual events to connect their clients and the larger Richmond community to resources, cultural activities, and storytelling. Learn more here.
The next months and even years will be challenging for the world as we recover from this crisis. However, the challenges are even greater for refugees and those who were already in precarious situations before the pandemic. BGAV partners are ensuring that refugees are not forgotten in this difficult time. Though we are not able to physically connect with our partners abroad at this time, there are a host of digital ways to connect with the important work that our brothers and sisters are doing to minister to refugees in their contexts. Learn more about the needs and challenges of each context here and how you can prayerfully and financially support our partners.
Will Cumbia is BGAV’s Field Coordinator for the focus:refugees missions partnership.