When the bus stopped in front of the refugee camp in Oldenburg, Germany, the 29 participants from TeenStreet (TS), OM’s international youth congress, had already split themselves into four groups: face painting, paper crafts, football and jenga towers.
As the first few children peaked into the camp’s courtyard, twins Annaluca (16) and Aliyah (16) and their friend Luisa (15) grabbed pieces of sidewalk chalk, ready to draw with the curious kids. Participation in a TS outreach activity is optional, but the girls were excited to spend their free time serving off site.
“We live in the south of Germany, and we went to a refugee camp near where we live,” Annaluca explained. Having played games with kids and women at the other camp, the girls wanted to repeat the experience at TS, this time with other international volunteers.
Soon, the three teens flocked to the face painting kits. Before long, they’d transformed a handful of children into colourful cats, dogs and fairies. Ten more crowded around the artists, waiting their turns.
Sidewalk chalk superheroes
Back by the sidewalk chalk, Robin (23) and Filip (15), both from Sweden, sat on the pavement with their newest friend, a 10-year-old boy from the camp. At first, his drawing requests, delivered in perfect English, were simple: an apple, a banana, an orange. Then, he challenged Robin to draw Superman. To the side, Filip started sketching Batman.
While the Swedes drew superheroes, they compared linguistic talents. The boy commissioning the sidewalk chalk art spoke five languages. Robin, over twice his age, spoke two.
When the conversation turned more serious, Robin shook his head as he continued to colour in Spiderman’s suit. “How can he be so happy?” he wondered.
Though the outreach provided Robin’s first contact to refugees in Germany, he had spent a week serving with OM in Serbia in Dec. 2015 and occasionally volunteered with refugees in Sweden. “That was really eye-opening,” he said. “You hear statistics, but to get faces and names, then it breaks your heart.”
Filip, part of Robin’s small group, joined the outreach because he wanted to meet people outside TS. “Christianity isn’t just meeting ourselves,” Robin affirmed. “Giving out is part of that as well.”
Hopes and dreams
Jacob (16), also from Sweden, sat to the side with a few teenagers from the camp, watching the football game unfolding a few metres away. “It’s nice to meet people from different countries,” he noted, adding that he went to the camp “so they can also see people from outside this place.”
Someday, Jacob said, he wanted to be an engineer. The most important thing in his life was “to be happy and make other people happy.”
Next to Jacob, the young men from the camp, 15, 14 and 23, respectively, shared their own career dreams: football player, teacher, chef. The most important things in their lives largely corresponded to their future hopes. The first teen prized his family and friends, the second school, the third cooking.
According to Stefan* (25), an OM worker who spent almost three years in the Near East field (Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria), the guys at the Oldenburg camp were similar to other refugees and Middle Eastern men he’d met, both in his host country and at home in Sweden. “They laugh at the same jokes,” he said.
When Stefan first returned to Sweden, he met three Palestinian brothers in process of transferring to another camp. Having learned Arabic on the field, Stefan said he was happy to meet other Arabic speakers. “I had the opportunity to talk to them, to listen to them and hear their story,” he remembered.
Since he spoke to them whilst on shift at the home where they were living, he wondered whether he should rather speak Swedish. “No,” other volunteers told him, “Speak as much Arabic as you can. They get enough Swedish from society and [communicating in Arabic], they will feel more safe and secure.”
Stefan joined the TS outreach out of personal interest— “I really like working with refugees and people from this area back in Sweden,” he stated. However, at TS for the 13th year, Stefan also said the outreach provided an excellent chance for the teens to get involved.
“In TeenStreet we talk a lot about living out faith, how we can be a light in everyday situations, school, work, society,” he explained. “Outreaches can be a good and practical thing at TeenStreet when [the teens] are in the mood to get out and be a light in the community.”
“What I like about reaching out to the refugees is it’s actual, it’s 2016,” he continued. “It’s opening up their eyes, and teens are exposed to things they’re not aware of. It’s good, in a week where you get a lot, to give.”
Femja (17) from the Faroe Islands joined the TS outreach to get experience serving. Last year, several of her friends went on a short-term outreach overseas. Femja wanted to go, too, but logistics prevented her from joining. Going to the refugee camp for an afternoon, she thought, would be a similar opportunity. “I want to be a missionary,” she explained.
Attending TS for the third time this year, Femja had previously participated in other outreaches, including handing out flowers and playing Jenga in the city centre.
At the refugee camp, Femja, now a “Jenga professional,” spent most of the two hours building (and toppling) oversized block towers with a few of the youngest children. “I just tried to be funny and make them laugh,” she said. “That was very exciting because the kids are small, they’re cute and they don’t have anything to do with this. It’s not their fault they ended up here.”
She noticed that some of the kids hesitated to interact with her. “They were scared,” she described. “It’s not easy.” Nonetheless, her time at the camp taught her one main thing about refugees: “They’re not evil people. They were very kind.”
Hanna (23), who helped organise the TS outreach to the refugee camp, “was born into OM” and spent most of her childhood in North Africa and the Middle East. “It’s my passion to see refugees being reached, and it was really a big part of my heart that we would go there,” she said.
Involved with the TS outreach team for the second year, Hanna said the group divided options into four themes this year: refugees, anti-human trafficking, practical work and prayer. “Because of the current situation with Germany having a lot of refugee camps, we thought it would be logical to do something with refugees,” she explained. “At the moment, [refugees] are a big part of Germany. If we want to bless the city, we really want to do it in that part as well.”
During the TS refugee outreaches, scheduled for Saturday and Monday afternoon during the teen’s free time, Hanna hoped the refugees would have fun and “feel loved by Jesus through the teens.” She also wanted the teens to take something away from the afternoon.
“I hope and pray that teenagers would be encouraged to do something similar in their surroundings, whether it’s with refugees or other groups not accepted in their communities,” she said. “Often if feels like you have to go across the sea to be in contact with people of other cultures and other religions.”
Now, however, refugees have arrived in Europe. “There’s such a freedom we have here that we would never have in the Arab world to share the Gospel,” Hanna emphasised. “I hope that the teenagers would realise that.”
Within OM Europe, more than ten countries have projects working with refugees alongside the church. In places like Hungary and Austria, OM teams have reached out to refugees for five years already, while other countries have responded to the recent influx of refugees into Europe by expanding existing ministries and creating new ones. Under the Safe Haven initiative, which spans work in Europe with refugees who have settled into a particular country, OM desires to use this unprecedented opportunity to reach communities of people who have never heard the Gospel by connecting churches with refugees and sharing the love of Jesus with them as they adapt to their new surroundings. For information about how you can be involved, contact your
local OM office to learn about current projects and discover how you can start similar work with your church in your local area.
*Name changed for security