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Posts Tagged ‘Croatia’

By Sarah E. Amick AlZubi

Have you ever walked somewhere and known that, from this point on, your steps along life’s path would be forever changed? (God can work through our feet.)

Have you ever touched something, and in reaching out, realized that you were what was being moved? (God can work through our hands.)

Have you ever seen someone’s face, really looked into their eyes, and felt a soul connection that you knew you would always remember? (God can work in and through our heads and hearts.)

We experienced these types of encounters, and more, throughout our week in Bosnia and Herzegovina last fall. International travel often results in life-changing moments, and mission trips tend to affect us in unexpected ways. We hear and follow God’s call to go and serve, end up receiving much more than we could ever give, and afterward try to express our gratitude for that as much as possible.

Our team of four (Steve Blanchard, Candi Brown and Sarah Amick AlZubi, from Richmond’s First Baptist Church, and Kenny Davis, pastor of Bybee’s Road Baptist Church) all left Richmond together on September 27 and arrived safely in Zagreb, Croatia on September 28. However, shortly after landing, we discovered that our entire plane’s luggage had been left behind at our previous layover stop in Germany! After our initial shock, our minds were quickly put at ease when we were met at the airport by the welcoming face of Elvis, our amazing and experienced host and guide for this trip who has worked with several Virginia Baptist mission teams over the past few years and Tiha, who provided much needed support, advice and a wealth of knowledge and experience regarding humanitarian aid. We made a few minor schedule adjustments, including a stop to buy some additional clothing and necessities, and arrived in Bihac, Bosnia on September 29. It was not lost on us that we had the resources to adapt and purchase new items as needed and that we should not take that for granted. Most of the time when someone is forced to leave their home as a refugee and travel on foot for hundreds of miles all they have are the clothes on their backs and a “carry-on.” If they can survive with that for months or years, we could certainly do so for a week.

Our first morning in Bosnia was beautiful and sunny and we were ready to get to work! Our team was led and accompanied by Elvis, Tiha and Vlad, another experienced humanitarian aid worker with a truly Christ-like, compassionate heart who joined us in Bihac. We traveled together that morning to the infamous Vučjak camp. Prior to our arrival, we had heard about the inhumane and unsanitary conditions in this “unofficial” camp, but actually being there on the site of a former landfill where people were now being forced to live among rubbish with no running water or toilets, was not something for which we could have fully prepared ourselves. (Plus, there were landmines left over from Balkan wars throughout the countryside and mountains surrounding the camp.) There were no permanent structures for shelter or medical care, just tents of various sizes and conditions. The hundreds of inhabitants of this “tent city” were making the best of a terrible situation, though, and welcomed us to their “home” with kind greetings and curiosity.

Throughout the week we also visited three other camps in Bihac, all filled and overflowing. We received informative tours, saw and experienced incredible hospitality and good work being done by the International Organization for Migration staff and other partners in those camps. It was encouraging to know that not every camp was as troubling as Vučjak. Since that is where the need was greatest, we returned there for the rest of that week. Every day we met new people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iran, Iraq and Syria, and heard more stories of why they had to leave home, the family members they dearly missed, what their journey had been like so far and where they planned to go next, God willing. We heard horrifying stories of danger and injury, heartbreaking stories of loss and illness, as well as heartfelt stories of hopes and dreams for the future.

Incredibly hardworking and committed Red Cross volunteers were also there every day trying to make the camp as livable, safe and healthy as possible. They oversaw distributing food, and we were happy to help them with this task. We also distributed hygiene kits, snacks, blankets and clothing items. Hardworking refugees residing in the camp were always happy to lend a hand, helping to maintain orderly lines, serving food, distributing supplies and assisting with translation when needed. Every day we worked alongside our new friends, picking up trash and repairing leaky tents blown down by gusts of wind and rain. There was also time for meaningful conversations and a few games, accompanied by genuine smiles and laughter. It was a blessing to be used by God to meet these physical, emotional and spiritual needs all around us, through our hands, feet, heads and hearts.

By the end of the week, a place that no one would choose to call home had begun to feel comfortable in some ways. This was not because of the physical conditions (which were still miserable), but because of the humanity, hospitality and compassion shared by everyone, including refugees, migrants, Red Cross volunteers, our team and even the dedicated police officers standing guard at the camp entrance. It was surprisingly difficult to say goodbye. I found myself blinking back tears as I promised to pray, raise awareness and most of all never forget the wonderful people I had met, all of whom are beautiful children of God, deserving of love, dignity and respect. We all have this in common and truly are connected, whether we realize it or not. If only we can remember that our actions here and around the world impact more people in more ways than we could ever imagine.

Now when I walk outside on a cold, windy evening, I look up at the sky and see the bright moon and stars. I quickly calculate in my head that if it’s 8:00 p.m. here in Virginia, then it’s 2:00 a.m. in the Balkans. I wonder if anyone there is awake and looking up at the same night sky, perhaps one of the many people we met last fall. I wonder how cold it is there now and what the snow looks like in the mountains. I wonder if they are safe and warm inside a building or huddled under a raggedy blanket in a drafty tent or, even worse, camping in the forest, completely unsheltered and unprotected from the freezing temperatures and harsh wind. I know the needs there are still overwhelming and the overall situation is very unstable. I say a prayer for them, that they may experience some comfort wherever they are, feel peace during struggles and uncertainty and, most of all, know they are not alone and not forgotten.


Author’s note: Thankfully, in mid-December, the Vučjak camp was closed and dismantled and those currently staying there were relocated to a more humane, sustainable location near Sarajevo. Thousands of refugees and migrants are continuing to arrive in Bosnia and Herzegovina on their way to the European Union and additional support and long-term solutions to the refugee crisis are still needed.

Editor’s note: On March 22, 2020 Croatia was hit by a series of earthquakes. At the same time, Croatia has been fighting to flatten the curve on the spreading of the Coronavirus. Strict measures have been put in place, asking people to stay at home and avoid social contact. Donate to Croatian Baptist Aid.

See Ann Carter’s previous post and another on Virginia Baptist mission teams going to Bosnia.

Story on the former Vučjak camp.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, October 5, 2019 – CBAid partners from Virginia (USA) visit refugee camps Sedra, Bira, Boriće and Vučjak in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

We saw parts of this BBC video being filmed while in Vucjak.

This is another news video filmed in Vucjak while we were there.


Sarah E. Amick AlZubi

Sarah E. Amick AlZubi joined FBC in 2015. She rings handbells, sings in Church Choir and One Accord, and serves on the Compassion Ministry Board. She participated in mission trips to China, Toronto, Romania and Bosnia. Sarah met her husband, who is from Jordan, at VCU, where she worked almost 12 years. She loves to travel and get to know people (and food!) from around the world.

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Photos by Franklin Hamilton and Shannon Harton

Jon Parks, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel, Roma Ministry in Slovakia

Voices from CroatiaIt was a test case for unmet expectations. This group had come to Croatia, sacrificing their time and their own resources to volunteer at the refugee center. Of course they had expectations of what they’d be doing, who they’d be helping. In the face of uncertain events, we almost always create some idea for ourselves of what might happen, just to help us deal with the uncertainty.

I didn’t know this group ahead of time, so I didn’t get to ask them about their expectations. But I watched as they dealt with the differences in their expectations and their reality. The reality was chaotic – there was a lot of waiting, a lot of changed plans, a lot of previously unthought-of ways of serving. But as an outsider I watched as they adapted themselves – sometimes with frustration, but finally with joy – to doing the unexpected things that God had for them to do.

Voices from CroatiaTo be honest, these folks from Virginia were primed for a unique opportunity. Most everyone at the center – police, Red Cross, translators – had a specific job to do, and it was easy for them to run back and forth doing the things they perceived were important… sometimes missing deeper human needs that a simple bag of food wouldn’t address. These people came with open eyes and ears and were able to see – and meet – the needs others were missing.

• A gentle touch for mothers, frightened for their children’s safety.
• A smile for people shuffling nervously between one country and another.
• A helping hand to gather all the little packets and clothes they’d been given.
• A thanks and a cup of coffee for policewomen and men, always on edge, wondering how to respond if things got out of hand.

When we are PRESENT, when we open our eyes and hearts to what is really needed around us, we’re in a unique place to help.

Voices from Croatia
Ann Carter, First Baptist Church (FBC) staff, Youth One Associate
Voices from CroatiaThe night shift is the place to be. During the day, scores of volunteers from Croatia and NGOs are in the camps, but few work the dark and lonely hours.

At about 1 a.m., we head into sector 3 which is filled to capacity (over 1,000 people).The train will arrive sometime in the night, no one knows when. So while the police protect the sector and the Red Cross mans the supplies, our team makes friends. Often the women and the children are in the tents asleep while the men stand guard outside. Our team pairs up and walks among the tents, smiling, saying good evening, asking if they have everything they need. Sometimes, the words go from pleasantries, answering a few questions and wishing them Godspeed to deep and meaningful conversations.

Voices from CroatiaWe made some friends: Mohammad from Syria; Hamza, also from Syria, traveling alone with his 8-year-old son; Sami, from Lebanon, traveling with his wife and 5 children – three girls and two boys, ages 2-10; Osama, from Syria, traveling with his pregnant wife. We hear harrowing stories of escape and what life was like for them at home – bombs falling on houses, family and friends imprisoned, children who can’t go to school for fear they may not come home. They talk about their families left behind and the ones who have already gotten out. They talk about businesses lost, education unfinished, the lack of work, hiding from snipers in their neighborhoods, about how they would go back in a minute if Assad were defeated and Isis and Hezbollah left their countries.

Voices from CroatiaWhen we hear the train whistle in the distance, everyone immediately lines up. With the crowd pushing ahead and the police pushing back, people are crushed and panicked. Our job is to try to form a single-file line. In the confusion, I lost my new friends but finally spot Sami and his family. The beauty and absolute sweetness of his children take my breath away. I stand with their few small bags as they take the children to the bathroom one last time. The mother pulls out hats and mittens, and I help little fingers into gloves while Sami puts hats on small heads, topping each with a kiss. We say goodbye amid blowing kisses and calls of “God bless you” and “Barak Allah fik!” (May Allah bless you!) I stand there and watch the police load them onto the train. There are no seats left. They must sit in the stairwell, clutching their knees to their chests to be out of the way as the door closes. They have a 6-hour train ride to Slovenia; then to Austria and Germany. Maybe Germany will let them stay? No one knows. And since they are from Lebanon, they aren’t really “war refugees.” Will their journey be in vain? Will they be sent back? I stand with tears streaming down my face until the train leaves, praying for their future and their safety. How could I have grown to love them so in only two hours?

Shannon Harton, FBC member

Voices from CroatiaThe last train out: after two hours of “processing,” our last trainload of refugees – 1200 of them – were on their way north.

We stayed busy this week distributing packs of essentials, sorting clothes, handing out hot tea, guiding families to their temporary quarters, stooping to make friendly eye contact with kids. It’s nearly impossible though to quantify the impact we had, other than the odd opportunity to run to the warehouse to replace a kid’s tattered shoes, to get a smile from an exhausted teenager loaded down with duffle bags and trudging to keep up with his family, or to squeeze in a few moments of friendly conversation to make a worried father feel more optimistic about his kids’ future. But as the train rolled out of the camp under the dawn sky – the last train we get to serve before heading home tonight – the smiles, waves and blown kisses from the windows make it clear that we scored at least a glancing blow against misery.

Franklin Hamilton, FBC member

Voices from CroatiaThe story of the lost shoe began one day in the refugee camp. There were an unusually large number of families with small children, 100s of them. As they rushed to get on the train, the children strained to keep up and some parents ran ahead to be sure their family could all be together in the same train car. I found this shoe on the train track long after the train had left. At first I thought it was a new shoe donated by the Red Cross. But as I looked more closely at the worn straps and the national colors of Syria, I saw stamped on the sole Made In SYR.

This shoe has become a religious icon reminding me of all the little children who have been swept away from their homes by war and hate.


Team members
FBC members: Steve Blanchard, Ann Carter, Jeff Dortch, Franklin Hamilton, Shannon and Heather Harton, Lori Humrich, and Lisa Tuck. Also on the team were Brent Kimlick (Franklin Baptist Church, Franklin, VA), and Jon Parks (CBF missionary).

Related video and blogs
Praying with our Feet, Spotting Jesus–Born on the Run” blog by Jon Parks
Brief Croatian refugee train video by Shannon Harton
Holding Space… Living with Arms Wide Open blog by Ann Carter
A little more like heaven”–VA Baptists Serve in a Croatian Refugee Camp
“Living with Arms Wide Open” sermon by Ann Carter

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