Meet Kelly Connolly. She’s spent the last few months on the frontlines of the refugee crisis, serving families in refugee camps on the Greek island of Lesvos. We asked Kelly to share about her experience and give us a firsthand perspective on the urgent situation. Here, she shares what moments give her courage, why we should lean toward the oppressed, and how to engage the crisis.
Kelly, thank you so much for sharing your story with Nations. First off, where are the majority of refugees coming from? Who are they?
In 2016, 44% of the refugees traveling to and through Lesvos were Syrian, 29% Afghan, 17% Iraqi, 4% Iranian, 3% Pakistani, and 3% represent other nationalities. The statistics from 2015 in comparison to 2016 tell a fascinating story. In 2015, the percentage of men was significantly higher than women, but now in 2016 women and children make up 58% of the arrivals. A significant portion of the people fleeing the Middle East and trekking across Europe come from middle and upper class homes. They are normal people, like you and me, living in the midst of extremely abnormal circumstances. My teammates and I have met people from every walk of life: newlyweds, pregnant mamas, young professionals, families with young kids, college friends, the elderly and those with disabilities. You name a segment of society, we’ve met them!
From your perspective of being ‘boots on the ground,’ what is the greatest need among refugees?
Two needs stick out to me in particular: the need for people to embody the merciful love of Jesus and the need for refugee-focused trafficking prevention.
Refugees have had their lives turned upside down as oppressive governments and radicalized terrorists destroyed their cities, homes, and hope for a future. The evil that refugees have been exposed to is so severe, and people’s heart and souls are in need of the healing power of Jesus. You can only imagine what the Taliban and the Islamic State are “offering” to our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters. When terror and fear are the reigning forces in your life, acts of mercy and empathy feel all the more lavish. I can’t tell you how many wet kisses I’ve gotten on my cheeks from sweet elderly women, overwhelmed with gratitude, for the tiniest acts of kindness we’ve offered. After so much darkness, the light is noticeable and needed.
The second critical need we’ve seen is for human trafficking awareness and prevention activities geared toward the Middle Eastern and North African refugee populations. Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal network in the world and preys on the most vulnerable populations within a society for its supply source. The influx of over a million refugees into the densely saturated trafficking context in Europe makes for a highly volatile situation. Essentially, it sets the stage for the intersection of the two greatest social issues of our time: modern day slavery and the refugee crisis.
Where are most refugee families headed after being entered into these camps?
After being registered with the Greek authorities, refugees leave the camps to make their way to the Mytilini port. Here they board commercial ferries for a 12-hour trip to Athens. From Athens they begin their journey through Greece, across the border to Macedonia, through the Balkans, and across the continent to Western and Northern Europe into “destination” countries (nations that have agreed to open their borders and receive high numbers of people seeking asylum).
What moments have given you courage or inspired you?
It’s been an absolute honor watching the Body of Christ come together to actively engage the crisis by joyfully serving the refugees in Lesvos. Never have I (personally) seen an instance of the global Church operating in so much unity. Worshipping and praying alongside believers from all over the world, who have pressed pause on their lives back home to come to Greece and love their neighbors has been so inspiring. It’s given me a glimpse into what heaven will look like—a beautiful, multifaceted representation of the world surrendered, submitted, and in awe of Jesus and His Kingdom.
What is the greatest call for Christians who are removed from the crisis? How do we effectively engage with and advocate for refugees?
I think the best place to start is by simply asking the Holy Spirit how he’s inviting us corporately and individually to respond to the crisis. For one person that might look like taking two weeks off work to volunteer and directly serve refugees in Europe. For another that might look like organizing regular times of intercession to partner with heaven in praying for the Kingdom to be made manifest in the midst of this crisis and for Muslims to experience the mercy and love of Jesus. For yet another, that might look like calling your state representatives and senators to show your support for refugees—to be a compassionate advocate on their behalf.
Whatever the outward workings may be, I believe the greatest call for Christians is to allow God to examine our hearts. Are our hearts plagued by a fearful or self-protective spirit? If so, let’s ask Him to soften our hearts and release His perfect love in us that fear would be cast out. May we be people who lean towards the marginalized, oppressed, and hurt, and not away from.
How does your time in Lesvos refute the current fear-based rhetoric about refugees we hear so often in the U.S. and Western Europe?
Prior to Lesvos, I didn’t realize how significantly a post-9/11 fear-based perspective—so poorly reflective the Kingdom of God—had shaped my worldview of the Middle East. The Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, and Iranians I’ve met over the last three months have deeply impacted me. The media portrays the Arab world as one marked by darkness, radical Islamic terrorism, and evil. Though strands of these stories persist, what I’ve been truly impacted by is the incredible graciousness and generosity of Middle Eastern cultures. The people I’ve met on the island are not my enemies but my brother and sister. As I’ve sat and talked with refugee families in the midst of the camps, I’ve been offered nearly everything they have—a warm space to sit in their tent, a piece of the pita they’re eating for lunch, a hot glass of tea to ward off the cold.
The more I’ve gotten to know individual men, women, and children from these nations, the more my heart breaks over our misguided assumptions. Whether Western or Eastern, Muslim or Christian, aid worker or refugee, we’re all made in the image of God—we’re covered in traces of the divine, and made to reflect the glory of our Maker.
Why do you think we’re called to bear witness to the suffering of refugees in this crisis? What does it accomplish?
It’s an interesting question. When I think of the nature and character of Jesus, I think of a man who is a good question asker and a good listener. People have a strong need to feel heard and have space created for them to tell their stories. When we slow down enough to actually listen to another’s story, we honor the narrative within them.
I think it’s particularly important to bear witness to the stories of individual refugees. As we read the news, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem and lose sight of the individual people whose lives we’re reading about. When we bear witness to individual’s stories, we’re able to see ourselves reflected in another. We can empathize with the pain of loss, grief, and mourning, even when our life circumstances are different. In hearing stories we’re able to make pathways of connection and find shared spaces of humanity.
Can you fill us in on your plans for the coming months?
Yes! I’ve been off the island for a few weeks, refueling back home in Waco, Texas, and am all set to head back to Lesvos in mid-March! This time around, I’ll be serving in an anti-human trafficking capacity as the European Director for UnBound (Antioch Community Church’s rockin’ anti-trafficking ministry). Over the next few months, Antioch will establish bases throughout Europe to engage the crisis on a wider scale in 2016. We’ll have short- and long-term teams throughout Europe whose sole purpose will be to love, serve, and minister to refugees as they make their way across the continent. I’m excited to spend the next few months piloting an UnBound initiative in Lesvos and to begin strategizing most effective way to utilize Antioch teams to do trafficking prevention and awareness among refugees!
This isn’t the last time you’ll hear from Kelly. Stay tuned to learn more about human trafficking prevention for refugees in Nations Journal Vol. 2. Kelly, thank you so much for talking with us!