*For her safety, we have renamed the interpreter “Ann.”
I read the headlines and all the media surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis, but I didn’t believe it had anything to do with me. I was safe and sheltered right here in sweet home Alabama. I prayed for the Syrians and sent a few donations, but honestly, the whole situation just wasn’t on my radar.
I had never been out of the United States and frankly never wanted to! My fear of flying and anxiety over increasing terrorist attacks reaffirmed that my place was right here at home.
But then my heart began to change.
I felt this gentle nudging that I was supposed to go on an international mission trip. I wasn’t sure where yet, but I just kept hearing a voice that said, “GO.”
So, before I could overthink it, I signed up for a church mission trip. The one that best fit my schedule happened to be a trip to Germany. We would be working with missionaries Andy and Cindy Kennedy, ministering to the Syrian refugees.
I have to admit, I had no idea what God was going to do with me. I was scared to leave the country, I didn’t speak a foreign language, and I had no experience with refugees or mission trips. But I also knew God was bigger than my fears and insecurities. So, if that’s where He was calling me, then He had some kind of plan. My plan was just to trust Him and be obedient. Over the next few months, He prepared my heart to GO.
Ready to GO
They had to leave their war-torn homes in hopes of safety and a new life. Their stories began to seep into my consciousness, and by the time we departed for Germany, my heart was full of affection and compassion for these displaced families.
When we arrived, Andy and Cindy Kennedy picked our team of six women up, got us settled and reviewed our schedule. The next morning, they took us to a refugee camp.
My heart sank when we pulled up. I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t this. The camp consisted of shipping containers bolted together with windows cut out for ventilation. Each family lived in one container, and German guards stood at the entrance. They allowed us into the camp because *Ann, an American missionary working as a social worker, was accompanying us. Ann spoke Arabic and German and could translate.
Ann knew the refugees personally, so she interpreted and shared some of their stories. Hearing about their journeys from Syria to Germany brought me to tears—their stories about being robbed, watching friends and family drown, seeing their friends decapitated by trains along narrow pathways, being shot at. They had traveled in inflatable boats, busses and even on foot across thousands of miles. Thankfully, they also encountered many kind people along the way who cried with them, cared for them and helped them continue their course. They were so grateful for the Germans who welcomed them into their country, and they wept as the Germans fed their hungry children, gave them clothing and helped them process paperwork to settle into camps.
These were people just like me.
Not So Different
They were mamas taking care of their babies. Fathers who had lost jobs and homes. Children scared and crying. I kept imagining what it would look like for me: bombs exploding across the street, grabbing my kids and running, abandoning my home, my friends, my possessions. All those years of working hard, saving for kids’ college and retirement, meaningless. Leaving behind my air conditioning, memory foam mattress and boutique clothes. Nothing mattering except life itself.
It certainly gave me a new perspective on my priorities.
Most refugees are Muslim, and many Muslims have been taught that American Christians are the devil. We wanted to change that belief, to break down stereotypes and build trust. We didn’t go into the camps to preach, though. The German guards wanted peace, and bringing in other religions often leads to tension and conflict. In fact, one camp closed its doors to outside visitors because they’d been openly praying inside the camp. Our mission was just to love. To love the way Jesus did: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)
We spent most of our time in the camp playing with children. I will never forget the joy on their faces. Just like American kids, they had hilariously sassy attitudes and argued with their siblings, had boundless energy and ran until they collapsed. Our hearts were broken when we had to leave.
We went into another camp and had a very similar experience. Some of those children were more aggressive, but we could sympathize once we understood what they’d been through. They had lost everything, displaced with barely enough money to survive. The Germans graciously gave these refugees an opportunity to start their lives over, but it hasn’t been easy.
Some refugees are now graduating into homes, but these people thrive on relationships and community. When Syrian families move into homes, their German neighbors don’t always welcome them. They are different, don’t speak the language well and feel isolated. They struggle with depression and loneliness.
Ann told us that many Syrians have been telling her about the dreams and visions they’ve been having. Dreams of a man in white with a shining face who comes to them and speaks their language perfectly. One woman who couldn’t walk said the man came to her and told her to stand up. She had tried unsuccessfully to walk many times before, but this time she stood up and walked. Although many refugees don’t recognize who this man is yet, we certainly do.
These divine encounters with Jesus are sparking interest and curiosity. People are asking questions and being challenged in their faith. While we can’t preach about Jesus in the camps, Jesus himself is coming to them individually.
Out of the Camps
The days we weren’t in the camps, I missed those kids so much. Those dark eyes and sweet smiles haunted me. I kept looking at the pictures I’d taken just to see their faces. God opened a place in my heart I never knew was there. He wrecked me. He taught me that just because the struggle isn’t in my own backyard, it should still devastate me. I have often prayed the prayer, “Break my heart for what breaks yours,” but I never really felt it until I was standing in those German refugee camps.
Our last few days in Germany, we hosted a weekend retreat. It was a time for the refugees to get away from their camps, to enjoy recreation and meeting new people. We didn’t need to speak the same language—we had interpreters, but we mainly just connected by spending time together.
Everyone was kind, respectful and grateful for the opportunity. The kids ran and played. We picked flowers and colored and held precious babies. At least six countries were represented, and I was moved seeing so many different cultures come together for one purpose.
We invited the refugees to attend our worship service. We offered each of them a gift of appreciation, and a few of them shared some of their insights about Islam. They stayed and listened as we sang praise music, and Andy shared a powerful message. He explained that we know we are different from each other—but different doesn’t have to mean separate. He clarified that in the Bible, God commands us to love not only people like us; we are called to love everyone. The verse Andy themed throughout his sermon was fitting:
“He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)
It was a service of acceptance and tolerance and peace. Many Syrians commented that if there were another retreat, they wanted to come again.
The retreat ended as we all shared a Syrian meal together and stayed up late telling stories and saying painful goodbyes. It was so hard! These people challenged my narrow view of the world. They aren’t just news headlines anymore. Their faces left a lasting imprint on my heart, and I see them in my dreams. I now pray for them with such compassion and tenderness, just like I pray for my own family.
We invested a lot of time with Andy, Cindy and their church family in Germany. Part of our mission was to embrace the church and encourage them—for their own spiritual growth, as well as to build bridges between the church and the refugees. We could come in and love the refugees and maybe even make a small impact on their lives, but we were only there for a week. Our hope is that the seeds we planted will continue to grow, that the connections formed among the church members and the refugees will flourish and multiply.
This trip was so much more than anything I imagined. Once I was out of my comfort zone, I encountered Jesus in a way I never have, and I watched Him working all around me. My goal is to take what I learned and use it here.
There are no Syrian refugees in our community, but there are plenty of lost, lonely, displaced people who need Jesus. The mission field is all around me. And near or far, God can use my wrecked heart to bless someone else.
All I have to do is GO.