This summer, I went as a volunteer missionary to Serbia for about five weeks with Courage for the Journey, a Nazarene initiative to support refugee aid work in Central Europe. During our first couple days, my team and I were asking for directions to the local Western Union in Belgrade when I first met Samuel* at what the Serbians call “Afghan Park.”
Samuel, a young man of about 20 years old with curious brown eyes and a thoughtful smile, offered to help us. He quietly walked just ahead of us, though we learned later that day over tea at the train station café that he loves to tease and make jokes with a mischievous smile.
During our stay, he became like a brother to us. We continued to spend time with Samuel until we left Belgrade.
One hot afternoon (it was about 49 degrees Celsius/120 Fahrenheit), I pulled out my new green notebook, which I had just purchased from a street vendor, and asked Samuel if he would tell me his story. He laughed a little, shrugged his shoulders, telling me to ask anything I wanted to but warned me that it would make me cry.
Samuel was born in Pakistan in a family of five sisters and three brothers. I could see the shadow of grief in his eyes when he told me his oldest brother had disappeared, as many young men had. The worst part, he told me, was that they don’t think they will ever hear from him or see him again: his family believes religious extremists in their community are responsible. Samuel’s family was heartbroken, which led them to worry even more about Samuel.
Not two weeks later his father came into his room, telling him he needed to leave before they came for him or threatened to kill their family as a way of coercion. Samuel told me that this was the first of the hardest moments of his life.
He traveled for a time with someone his uncle knew. They drove some, but most of his traveling was done by foot. He progressed through Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey with different strangers; he had to entrust his life to guides he did not know, through mountains, cities, forests. Food and water was hard to come by in his travels; there was even a period of four days where he could not get any food at all.
From Turkey, he reached Bulgaria where he says authorities caught and beat him for two months to force him to give his fingerprint, which could have had him sent back to Bulgaria once he reached a country in which he could live peacefully. They finally dropped him off in one of the only open-borders countries in the area: Serbia.
Samuel was stuck in Serbia for almost a year. He tried to cross the borders into Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina… but he each time officials returned him to Serbia.
He and other refugees in Serbia waited and waited. Many are still waiting. I was there, witnessing their frustrating situation. However, what amazes me is that they never give up on the idea that someday they are going to make it somewhere good for their families.
Samuel’s dream is to continue medical school and bring his family to join him in a safe place, although he said he hopes to someday return to Pakistan as a doctor to help his country.
Samuel contacted me not too long ago and said he made it out of Serbia after 11 heart-wrenching attempts; he is struggling to survive in a world where he feels discriminated against and sometimes feels less than human.
I feel very honored to have met him and to have been part of helping him restore his dignity. During one of our conversations, I asked him what he missed most about Pakistan. His answer still breaks my heart: “Everything. The food… my family… my culture… my people… everything.”
Please pray for Jesus’ peace and comfort to rest on Samuel and the other refugees.
Samuel asked me to share his story and his poem with all my friends:
There Was a Time When I Loved Alone
A Change of Season
This Prisoner Breathes
How Hard It Is to Manage Life Insight
To Catch Butterflies
Kept On Compromising on Life
You Know Only Dreams
There Was a Heart that Burnt Out: Light
The Wind, Too, Can Change Direction
Can Someone Bring Me My Entire Being?
Last Conversation with the Sky
The Breeze Rewrites
Please Bring a Token Home from Each Journey
The Flower is Torn at the Heart
I Say Nothing Anywhere.
*A different name is used in order to protect him as he travels.