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boarding the train to Slovenia
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a tent city in the western Balkans
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early morning volunteer hours

The guards are frightening. 

I imagine how it all looks from the eyes of a Syrian child who has run from ISIS, or through the eyes of the tumbling stomach of an Afghani girl who has hidden her shaking vulnerability behind flimsy doors in fear of Taliban soldiers. 

Here in Europe, the guards wear black. Their face masks are black too, covering all but the eyes as she walks through mazes formed by the position of cattle fences. 

I look at the one train track that leads into the camp, so reminiscent of another camp in Poland, where people entered and never left. How similar the idea of controlling people can become, even when this camp is helping a flow of humanity.

I flip back the rough material of a tent that can house 1500 people by stacking them in bunk beds 4 high. There is an efficiency here – one tent can accommodate one train of passengers. 

But, we do not call them passengers, do we?

We call them refugees while we wonder if the better word is terrorist. And, we judge whether they should have fled their country or stayed to fight. And we divide their trauma into the categories of refugee of war or refugee of economy, as if we somehow understand how those two realities would feel.

You will have to forgive the rawness of my words. I am fresh from the camp this morning. The comforts of my beautiful Christmas tree, my warm and carpeted home, my candles, my strong European coffee, and my sleeping cherubs have not yet re-anesthetized me to the pain of the rest of the world. I can still feel yesterday’s cold bite through my 5 layers of clothes.

Good day,’ I sing in a cheerful chirp as I make eye contact with the guard. The black mask covering his face make his eyes the sole clues to his mood. I am walking the wrong way through a maze of cattle stalls and people, refugees. My destination is a kiosk that sells steamy hot chocolate to warm the freezing soul on a journey.

At the kiosk, I grab my hot cup and thankfully wrap my gloved fingers around its momentary comfort. A  family refugee has gotten out of line to grab some cigarettes and hot coffee. She is not covered. She is smoking. Her pre-teen kids are waiting around the edges as teens do. We make eye contact, as mothers do. 

I have an Arabic word-arsenal of exactly 10 phrases, all of which are pathetically mispronounced. I try anyway.

Hello“, I greet her in Arabic.

Her face breaks into a smile and she sets into verbal tirade of Arabic that I cannot follow. 

No. No.” I stop her with a sheepish little laugh. I do not speak Arabic. Only English.

No Arabic?” she asks in Arabic.

No, just English.” I say in English.

English?” she says in Arabic.

Yes, only English.” I say in English.

Her daughter moves to her side and I look at her with hopeful eyes.

Do you speak English?” I ask.

“No English.” she answers with a shrug in Arabic.

So our eyes pause through the steam of my chocolate and her cigarette. We are around the same age, I would guess. Mothers with children. A refugee mother with an economic dependent and a western mother with a child.

We have no common language.

We are from vastly different worlds.

We will never see each other again.

To try and find each other amidst the cold, and the cattle gates, and the guards, and the chaos, and the steam, and the conflict, and the politics, and the fear, and the controversy, and the different faiths or no faith, and the probability that she is a terrorist and I am an infidel

is pointless.

Syria?” I ask.

She nods. “Aleppo.” 

God bless you.” I butcher the Arabic phrase but she understands anyway and smiles. I have it written phonetically in my teal notebook like this:  /all-AH — MAR-kon/ God bless you.

I watch her eyes take in the kiosk and the train and the people refugees shuffling past her in this gray place called the western Balkans.

Aleppo…” she says, shaking her head sadly. “No Aleppo.” she states with sadness in heavily accented English. And then, her hand makes a wide arch that spreads the smoke of the cigarette tucked into her fingers. She completes the arch with a small, tragic burst of ‘boom‘ that is an exhale. The smoke of her cigarette hangs in the air above the boom.

Yes, I nod my head. “I know” and then I repeat her ‘boom‘. The gust of my breath mingles there in the air with hers – the only tangible evidence that our worlds have ever collided.

Suddenly the guard fires a command to get moving as he opens the cattle gate. She smiles, grabs my shoulders, pulls me close like a good friend and kisses each freezing cheek before she slips back into the line of people refugees that is already moving.

“Have a good journey” I call out in Arabic. I have been working on that phrase since September. My tongue still gets tangled in its web of terrifying consonant and vowel combinations. 

As she comes up to the barking guard with only the eyes and the mask, she looks back and smiles and waves. She has heard my last words and somehow she has understood.

In spite of our different worlds. Our different languages. Our different … everything.

We have found each other and for a moment we are good friends: two mothers a refugee mother and a western mother on a journey with our children asylum seeking dependents and children. 

And for a moment, just one tiny exhale of a second, a different kingdom has broken through and there is peace in our world. 


There are some who want give during this Christmas season for refugee care.  If you are one such person, please click the tab to the right ‘donate to deputation‘ or click here. Follow that up with an email : TSunberg@me.com letting us know you have given for Refugee Relief. Or, if you have questions about how the money will be used, email us. 

All donations will go directly and completely to refugee relief on the Central Europe Field. 

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12 thoughts on “courage for the journey – dangerous refugees

  1. Thank you for your words and pictures. I will continue to pray for you and all the families, beautiful people who have been forced to be “refugees.” God sees people, even when we don’t Thank you for all you do and God bless you all.

  2. God bless you and your dear family as you share the love of God with those He feels the pain through you. The Lord has gifted with you with a talent for writing. I felt like I was there and it challenges me to pray with more of a personal connection now. Blessings in Christ! Your box mate in college, Bret:)

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