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More Than Drops in the Bucket: Loving Refugees in Greece

Back in his home country of Iran, Amir*—a nominal Muslim—had been a computer science professor. After being thrown in jail twice for his political views, his family told him: “You’ve got to leave the country. If you go to jail again, we’ll never see you again.”

Amir left without telling his family—doing so would have put them in danger.

Fatima* became a believer in Iran, fleeing the country after her brother and father tried to kill her. Her journey to Greece was fraught with danger and tragedy, but along the way she met Amir. They married, moved to Athens, and connected with the Glyfada church where MTW missionaries serve.

Amir and Fatima are just two of the more than 82.4 million people—one out of every 95 people in the world—forcibly displaced from their homes.** These men, women, and children have fled things like war, persecution, and famine, seeking safety and a better life elsewhere. For many, particularly those from the Middle East or Central Asia, their destination was Europe—and the route of their modern-day exodus took them straight through Greece.

“Probably a million and a half refugees have passed through Greece to other places,” said MTW missionary David Pervis. “Today there are about 50,000 in this country.”

Partnering with the Greek Evangelical Church, MTW missionaries David and Erin Pervis work with a congregation of around 50 people in Glyfada, a city seven miles south of the Athens’ center. Back in 2015, the Greek government set up a refugee camp in an old airport on the edge of Glyfada. The refugees’ needs were immense, and before long the church decided they had to do something to help.

A Church of 50 Has Sheltered 22 Families

Led by Greek pastor George Tolias and MTW missionaries Kay and Phillip Luther, the congregation began distributing clothing in the refugee camp—ministering to immediate needs in whatever little ways they could. When the government closed the camp in June 2017, George and the Luthers developed a plan to house refugees who had no place to live with the goal of helping them integrate into Greek society, since the borders to the rest of Europe had been closed.

“The denomination owned a three-story building with an apartment on each floor,” David said. “They allowed the church to rent two of these floors, and it was arranged such that families could each take a bedroom—each with its own bath—and sharing two kitchens, a living room, and a classroom.”

They call it Voula House. Here, as part of the church’s At Home Project, a total of 22 refugee families from Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere have lived side by side in the shared space. Some have been believers, some Muslims, some Yazidi. Without citizenship, and still learning Greek, these refugees struggle to find work in Athens. Though cash is tight for many Greeks as well, the Glyfada church allows these families to stay rent-free, while the church pays for utilities and occasionally provides money for food—giving them shelter and helping them survive as they get on their feet and build new lives in Europe.

“We have a system where these families basically sign a contract with the church—the rules for the house,” Erin explained. “They have to work on their [asylum] paperwork, try to find a job, study Greek and English, and try to get their kids in school. They have all these hoops that they need to jump through, but then they can stay at Voula House for a maximum of two years.”

The goal is for families to transition to living on their own. Meanwhile the Glyfada church does everything they can to help them along the way.

“At this point, there’s a waiting list to get into the Voula House,” said Erin. “It’s kind of a drop in the bucket. I wish we had 1,000 Voula Houses, because there are still so many refugees who don’t have a safe place to live—not just in Athens, but all over the country.”

“Just” a drop in the bucket or not, if the church had not opened their hearts and doors to these families, they would all be in much more dire straits. David and Erin tell stories of refugee families they have known: the Kurdish family with three kids, living in somebody’s garden in the center of Athens; the mother with a brand-new baby, squatting in an abandoned school; a man whose only jacket was stolen while he was off washing his pot.

A Heart for Muslims

Erin has had a heart for Muslims since long before she and David moved to Greece. Fluent in Arabic, she spent most of her 20s and 30s living and ministering all over the Middle East. After she and David were married, the pair served on MTW church-planting teams in Bulgaria and Ukraine for nearly 20 years. They watched from afar as the Middle East collapsed into chaos in the wake of the Arab Spring; as millions fled across the Mediterranean on leaky boats, searching for peace and hope.

“I still have a real love for Muslims, and Syrians in particular,” Erin said. “These folks have been through and seen unspeakable things, and some of them left because they became believers in their own country and were persecuted. Many others, not just here in Greece, but everywhere in Europe—they’re really open. Now they have an opportunity to hear the gospel clearly for maybe the first time, and that’s a great thing.”

After the Pervises' kids graduated from high school in Ukraine, they saw their chance—their call—and they took it. In 2018, they moved to Greece to serve alongside the local church, to share the gospel and minister to their refugee neighbors, and to make a dent for the kingdom in a hurting world.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pervises would visit the Voula House, teaching English, spending time with the families, and listening to their stories. They celebrated birthdays, danced in Iranian dance parties, and shared meals together.

“Many of them would tell us, ‘We haven’t laughed in years,’” said Erin. “They would cook for us and say, ‘My mom used to make this.’ For them, it’s an opportunity to really be seen as humans.

"Your God is big!"

Amir and Fatima were the first to move into the Voula House. Amir watched his Christian wife and the local Christians who had helped them in their time of need.

“Your God is big,” he told her.

After joining a Bible study with the Luthers and having dozens of conversations over tea, Amir began to soak in gospel truth. After three months, he became a Christian too. The couple became leaders at Voula House, started helping with the church, and got baptized. In the years since, they were able to move on to Germany, where Amir was more likely to find decent computer science work.

“They had to basically start over in the refugee system in Germany,” Erin said. “But in the meantime, they have been evangelism machines among Farsi speakers in their refugee housing.”

“Over 100 people have come to Christ,” David added.

“That’s God doing all that,” Erin said. “God brought them on that journey, awful as it was. They found each other. And now it’s just amazing. You never know what God will do with all these little drops in the bucket.”

Remarkable as it is, that’s just one story of many.

There’s the family of believers—a husband, wife, and elementary school-aged son—who struggled to find work in Athens, and eventually left on foot to sneak into Norway where they will have a chance to share their faith with fellow Iranians.

There’s Abbas,* a young man who had been in the Syrian army, arrested on suspicion of disloyalty to the regime, and tortured in prison for a year. When he was released, he found that his parents had been killed in a bombing. Fearing for his safety, he walked to Turkey and from there made his way to Athens. But on the way, he had a dream. In his dream, his Muslim mother hung a cross around his neck. Dreams are seen as very significant in Islam, and when he arrived in Athens he went straight to a refugee center where a woman from the Glyfada church was working. He told her: “I want to become a Christian.” And so he did.

There’s the Afghan man thrown into prison in Greece for not having the right papers. There, someone gave him a Bible in his own language, and he read the whole thing.

There’s the Iranian couple who, after moving into Voula House, came to faith through conversations with Pastor Tolias. They were baptized this spring.

Story after story after story of brokenness and suffering, healing and redemption; of people fleeing the horrors of war and finding the hope of Christ in a little church in Athens.

“For 30 or 40 years there has been an emphasis on praying for the 10/40 window, and this is part of the answer,” David said. “These are not just ‘drops in the bucket,’ they are image bearers, each one precious to the Lord. It’s just a wonderful privilege to get to work with and develop a deeper relationship with them.”

Nearly snuffed out, these image bearers were given a spark of hope through the power of the gospel and the witness of His Church. And now these little sparks—lit in the embers of Glyfada—are spreading from Greece across Europe, primed to set Europe ablaze with the hope of Christ.

We have over 20 opportunities to minister to refugees: mtw.org/serve.

*Names changed for security.
**Source: United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR.org)

Andrew Shaughnessy, Athens Greece Oct 19, 2021
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Pray for the people of Mati, Greece, who are responding with spiritual openness following disaster response efforts of the Greek Evangelical Church and MTW. 

Pray for a small church in Athens, Greece that is reaching out to refugees with the love of Christ. Pray for the refugees there to hear the truth of the gospel. 

Pray for ongoing work among refugees in Greece. 

Pray for those impacted by the deadly wildfires in Greece. Pray also for wisdom as a team assesses how best to help. 

Give thanks to God for a movement of the Spirit spreading across Europe opening doors that have been long-shut.

Pray for national pastor Giotis Kantartzis and missionaries Philip and Kay Luther serving in Athens, Greece, as they work toward a vision of expansive church-planting in a region that is hungry for truth.

Pray for an Italian couple returning to their home country to church plant. 

Pray for a small group men's study in the Middle East as men seek to learn truth Scripture while wrestling with the realities of what ISIS has taken from them.

Give thanks for the church leaders that God has been raising up in Bogota, Colombia. Pray that this growth will continue. 

Pray for the growing Business as Mission work through the Glyfada Church Plant in Athens, Greece.

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