refugee crisis

Diary of a Syrian Refugee

World to the Wise Podcast

When my wife Becky and I were in Europe last summer, we followed the story of a number of the refugees we met in Greece, to Germany, where many of them had loved ones waiting for them. One of these was a young Syrian woman, who is engaged to a young man we befriended in Athens. We set out to visit her and arrived at the refugee center, a simple but clean apartment complex in the Berlin suburbs, and a pleasant looking man in his thirties came to greet us in the lobby. He turned out to be the young lady’s uncle, and was the only member of the family who spoke English.

We spent the next two hours visiting with both of them, and were joined about halfway through by her parents. Their hospitable and kind spirit was exactly what we had experienced in Greece in the camps. And when we left, I felt a strong connection especially with our interpreter, whom we’ll call Ali in this podcast, and had the impression that if I ever decided to get serious about learning Arabic, he would be a great teacher or mentor.

Well, it finally happened. Ali and I are now having weekly Skype conversations where he is answering all my questions that come up in my self-study. But I also asked Ali if he would be willing to let me interview him for this podcast. I had never heard his story of escape from Syria, where he would face almost certain death if he were to return now. I’d like to share with you here the unedited testimony of one Syrian who represents the hundreds of thousands who have fled their homeland in one of the greatest mass migrations of our time....

In our last Skype conversation, Ali told me he had just passed a round of German exams and is on to the next level. He hopes to eventually get a full time job, but is grateful for his part time job at the concert hall for now, as he carves out his new life in Germany.

Born Into Exile


Christmas with the family this year was one of the best we've ever had. As the patriarch of a gathering of thirteen people, I was filled with joy and gratitude to watch the love flow between my sons, their wives and girlfriend, and their offspring. It probably helped that our Christmas dinner was actually a relatively simple but tasty brunch, eliminating some of the stress of cooking. But for my wife and me, Christmas also carried with it a new dimension, shaped by our experiences last summer with the European refugee crisis. I thought I would share with you the contents of the note that accompanied the ornament, pictured here, we gave to each of our three sons and their families:

Last summer we were forever changed.

As the European refugee crisis began to gain more and more international attention, we began to realize how little we really knew about the complexities of the situation. We decided we needed to understand better, and up close.

Having very little idea what to expect, we signed up to meet up with a team from Servant Group International to work with refugees in Athens. “Work” is a relatively loose term here – if we did any work, it was nothing more than helping with some meal preparation and giving some English lessons. What we mostly did was observe and learn from the Syrian, Palestinian, Iraqi and Afghani refugees we encountered. Some we met at the tent camps at the port of Pyraeus. Others we met at the “squats” – abandoned buildings such as schools, where they had set up tents in the classrooms.

We heard stories of heart-wrenching trauma. We talked to people who were successful, upstanding citizens in their home country before they were forced to flee and leave everything behind. We listened on the verge of tears to accounts of the harrowing, multi-leg journey to where we now sat together. And more than once we were on the receiving end of hospitality that put us to shame.

We quickly learned that many of the refugees we befriended had loves ones waiting for them in Germany, so we decided to follow two or three of the stories and look up some of these loved ones in Berlin. We were mostly successful, and gratified and saddened at the same time to witness the separation first-hand.

Being in Germany brought back a number of family memories, one in particular related to Christmas. Some time in the early 90’s we found ourselves in the so-called “Christmas Village” of Ravensburg, where we wandered, with Jonathan and Michael, through numerous shops filled with more Christmas paraphernalia than you can imagine. In one shop in particular, we walked slowly through a somewhat cramped and cluttered maize of merchandise until it suddenly opened up to a cavernous wonderland of toys, reindeer, winter scenes and countless lights. It was a Disney-esque, sensory overload, especially for a four-year-old. Said four-year-old was so overcome, he had no words to express what he was witnessing. “This is…this is…” and when no other words would come, he coined a word that would live on in Durham family lore: “FLYTUS!”

In Berlin we now found ourselves in a similar Christmas store. As memories of Ravensburg came flooding back, we made our way through the extensive stock of ornaments and other Christmas trappings, hoping to find something that would remind us at future Christmases of our impacting experience with the refugees. We were about to give up when we came across the ornament in this box. It spoke volumes to us:

The love of God become incarnate in Jesus, who along with his parents, began his life as a refugee. It reminded us that for all our efforts to understand the plight of the displaced, no one identifies more with them – or with any of us – than He.

And we will never be the same.

Summing Up the Summer

World to the Wise Podcast

In this episode, I give a brief wrap-up of the six-week discovery trip in Europe that my wife and I undertook in order to better understand some big issues. Some of these issues we are also dealing with here in the US; others are perhaps particular to Europe, but there is an interesting dynamic often at work -- what happens in Europe very often affects us here in the US and other parts of the world. It is my hope that what Becky and I saw and learned -- and the stories we relate -- will help you get a better handle not only on the refugee crisis in Europe but also inform your thinking on similar issues and challenges you face wherever you live. 

As always, your feedback is welcome. Just leave a comment here or email me at


A Tide of Nationalism


Very few saw it coming. We were in France when it happened. We had spoken to a number of Brits from multiple generations before the day of the referendum, and they were unanimously in favor of #remaINing in the European Union. So it was as much a surprise to us as to anyone that Brexit became a reality. It reminded me of the Trump phenomenon in the States -- I don't actually know anyone who voted for him in the primaries, but someone obviously did. It would be mistaken and simplistic to point to one single motive behind the results in favor of Brexit; ever since there was such a thing as Britain, there has been a prevalent island mentality. (The word "insular" comes from the same word as "island".) Great Britain opted out in 1992 of adopting the euro as its national currency, even though it was a part of the newly formed European Union. There has always been a sometimes comfortable / sometimes uncomfortable distance between the UK and the European mainland, in spite of the fact that the 31 miles between Dover and Calais has not changed recently. 

But there was more at play here. The working class north of England, as well as Wales, has apparently been feeling disenfranchised and unheard. But the wave of migrants flooding the European continent, already in progress before the Syrian war even broke out, then overflowing because of said war, has certainly played a role in this 52% to 48% vote. There is concern, some of it understandable, about migrants taking British jobs. (This has been going on for some time -- in my experience, chances are very good that your order in any British pub or cafe will be taken by a foreign national from another EU country.)

Combine this situation with a rising tide of nationalism -- not only in the UK, but in many European countries -- and you have a volatile mix. There is a circle-the-wagons mindset taking hold across the continent. Not unanimous by any means, but significant. The day after the Brexit vote, the Dutch anti-immigration leader called for a similar referendum in the Netherlands. Greece has long had a major chip on its shoulder vis-a-vis the EU, as my wife and I heard first hand during our recent time there.

It's anyone's guess exactly how Brexit will play itself out, and some of our distraught British friends may decide in the future that they over-reacted on June 24, 2016. I don't pretend to be an economist or an expert on international affairs; but I am concerned about the growing resistance to anything foreign, whether in the US or Europe. It is a little too easy to take legitimate concerns about jobs and terrorists too far and turn them into irrational, fear-driven conclusions.

With all the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from both sides of the Atlantic, I can't help wondering what the Native American community must be thinking. Do they laugh or cry to hear white-dominated Americans deciding who can and who cannot land on these shores?

On this Independence Day 2016, may we realize our DEpendence as well. Our interdependence. In the 21st century, there is no more such a thing as a pure American than there is a pure Briton or a pure Frenchman. Not that we can't celebrate our national identity as we do today; but we must not forget that our strength is not in our sameness, but in our diversity.

The Jungle, Part II

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(For Part I, click here.) Once we had been waved through, we had to decide which of two dirt roads was the more passable in order to get to the small cluster of makeshift buildings marked by a couple of signs saying "Ecole" or "School" on the edge of the camp. There were a few other cars parked, all with French license plates. Our eyes landed on a white, middle-aged woman talking to a handful of dark-skinned migrants. She was a local volunteer, giving several hours per week to teach French to anyone who asks. It was immediately evident that she has given her heart and soul for the people of the Jungle as she answered our questions. It is in many respects a small city. Although there are some tents, many of the dwellings are makeshift houses, although that word is really saying too much. There are shops, of sorts. (As you look at the photos, remember all our observations were from just outside the camp.)

truck hopping
truck hopping

There are a lot of reasons the Jungle feels different. For one thing, none of the camps we visited in Athens come close to the number of people all in one place. But the biggest distinction is that the migrants at the jungle can almost SMELL their desired destination, just 33 kilometers (20.5 miles) away. That makes their quest seem a little more dramatic and perhaps a little more urgent, with almost daily attempts at hopping a truck.

We were chatting with Dominique, the first French volunteer teacher we met at the school, when we  were invited inside for a video presentation by a young lady from a performance art company from the  city of Nantes. She does advance publicity for a traveling street performance called Long Ma, or “horse dragon” in Chinese. The company builds huge mechanical figures in the form of a horse dragon and a giant spider, and they draw huge crowds on the streets of European cities as well as on other continents. It was her idea to interest as many of the Jungle inhabitants as possible, which we agreed would be a great diversion from their daily existence in the camp. When she found out I was a French teacher, she asked if I would be willing to interpret for her in English. I found myself wishing that more from the camp had heard about the presentation, but I’m sure the word about the street show traveled.


After the presentation, we were standing back outside when we suddenly saw and felt our first ever tear gas attack. All of us were immediately seized with burning and tearing eyes, coughing, and stinging nostrils. Becky and I thought about making a run for the car, but quickly realized that would be no escape. So we ran back into the makeshift schoolroom to wait out the worst of the gas and its effects. The French volunteers were saying they had never experienced tear gas in all their time of coming here.


And yet, it is apparently not all that uncommon. The riot police have their orders: to contain the migrants in the camp and prevent them from attempting any more stowaways. As we eventually got in the car to leave, the visual was striking: the police in full riot gear in a face-off with several dozen migrants. I was reminded of the video a Palestinian refugee from Syria showed me in Athens of Turkish police with knives boarding the inflatable boat they were in with orders to puncture the boats. Like the French riot police, they were following orders to stop the flow of migrants leaving their shores.

In spite of the contrasts between what we experienced in Greece and France, the parallels are undeniable. The great majority have crossed water under perilous circumstances, be it the Aegean or the Mediterranean. Most of them have someone waiting for them in a prosperous European country, having gone ahead to seek a better life. And most of them still in the camps have nothing left.

Our oldest son and his brother-in-law, also a dear friend of ours, wrote a song about the plight of the refugees in this latest wave of the past year to two years. I leave you with a rough audio recording, along with the lyrics, below.

We did not come away from our experiences with specific ideas or strong opinions about what should be done to stop the Syrian war, or solutions for solving the massive challenge facing Europe at this time. What we did come away with is a renewed awareness of the senselessness of war, as well as not one but dozens of stories — stories that put a face on this crisis and have left an indelible impression on us. We know we cannot remain indifferent — including to those in our own city.

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by Jonathan Durham and Brian Beise

So the plan has changed, so we quit the land,

So we lost our home, I still have your hand

So the dark is deep,  and our vessel shakes,

I will call your name, and the day will break

See there's the sunlight;  it was never really gone

It's travelled far and it has farther still to go

The wind has died but we will set our sails, love

There is no tide so we will row

So waves of our friends crash onto the shore

Everyday we choose another last resort

So the borders close and the waters rise

We will ride these boards and find the sea's good side

See there's the sunlight; it was never really gone

It's travelled far and it has farther still to go

The wind has died but we will set our sails, love

There is no tide so we will row

We haul on frozen ropes, salt-soaked to the bone

But when you say my name you and I are home

(c) 2015 Brian Beise and Jonathan Durham

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A Day in the Life of the Jungle


We didn't really know what to expect. We had been following an organization called "l'Auberge des migrants" on Facebook for several weeks. It is a UK-based nonprofit that mobilizes volunteers -- largely from the UK, but from other countries as well, including a few Americans -- to sort clothes, cook and deliver meals, teach English lessons, and generally help meet the daily needs of the roughly 4,500 migrants that find themselves in a place called the Jungle.

I'm not at all sure who gave this refugee camp that nickname. In a way it seems to me to dehumanize what is already a cauldron of needs, hopes and aspirations, not to mention abhorrent living conditions.

Becky and I wanted to visit the camp, even for just a day, to observe and compare this situation with what we encountered in Greece. We decided to apply as volunteers for a day with the Auberge (which means "inn"). Not having heard back from them (it turns out they only accept volunteers for a week or more), we decided to just drive to Calais and see what we could see.


On a tip from the staff at the restaurant where we had had lunch, we drove to an area near the port of Calais, where hundreds of vehicles line up every day for the car ferry that will take them across the English Channel. Not surprisingly, the Jungle is right there, below the overpass leading to the ferry, although it took what seemed like forever to figure out how to get there by car. One young man at a nearby animal shelter, where we stopped to ask more questions, told me where I could find the warehouses where most of the volunteers work.


Under a chilly drizzle, we arrived at the warehouse, given away by the number of British license plates on the cars parked in the street. We were welcomed by a smiling young man from  Manchester, wearing a high-vis raincoat. Dozens of other young volunteers scurried about, many of them finishing up a coffee break and getting back to sorting supplies, setting up donated tents to make sure all the parts were there, and loading a large truck with clothes. Mostly English was spoken, with a little French or German here and there.

After a few more minutes of asking questions of whomever was available, we were told that we couldn't actually go inside the camp, but that if we showed up at the gate at 6:00 pm, we could visit the makeshift school on the edge of the Jungle, where anyone can go and volunteer their time to give lessons in English, French, and other things.

We arrived at the entrance to the Jungle, guarded by a strong contingent of police. Having set aside my natural reluctance to ask strangers questions (I suppose I'm becoming a self-styled journalist in my old age), I struck up a conversation with one of the troopers while his colleague was running my passport through the system. He told me this unit is part of the national riot police, called in anywhere in France where there is a need to restore order. It wouldn't be long before we would see part of how this is done.

There was such a different feel between the camps we visited in Athens and the Jungle here in Calais. A majority (by how many I'm not sure) of the migrants come from Africa, notably Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. There are also a number from other African countries, along with Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. Many have attempted to jump aboard a truck bound for the ferry. Some of those waiting in the Jungle are following legal procedures for applying for asylum, but their chances are usually slim. And now with the Brexit, many in France are calling on England to protect their own border -- in other words, to relieve France of the responsibility of holding them back.

If many of the refugees in Athens have family waiting for them in Germany, many of those in the Jungle have people waiting in the UK -- hence the hope of somehow making it across the Channel.


In Part II, you'll read about the surprise that awaited not only us, but some of the volunteers who happened to be at the Jungle at the same time....

Germany: Promised Land?

World to the Wise Podcast

Becky and I continue our European odyssey by following the "refugee trail" from Greece to Germany, where so many of those in Greece have loved ones waiting for them. Our first stop was Berlin, where we had a couple of important errands: delivering hand written notes from their loved ones still stranded in Athens. You can read about that in this blog post.

We also met a singer-songwriter from New Zealand who lives in Berlin named Mathew James White(pictured at right with girlfriend Christine). Mat was invited to do a songwriting seminar this past spring. To his surprise, all but two of the participants ended up being refugees. By the end of their time together with Mat, they had written a song to thank Germany for taking them in. You can read about that on Mat's Facebook page in his post dated June 1.


In this podcast episode, you'll meet our friends Andreas and Anya Krause (pictured left), whose story tells of friendships that came from reaching out to a handful of some of the hundreds of thousands of recent arrivals in their nation of Germany. They also share many insights about being on the receiving end of such a huge influx of displaced people. I hope you enjoy their compelling stories.

Next week we come to you from Paris, where we take the pulse of the City of Lights seven months after the November 13 attacks.

Following the Stories to Berlin

Abu Ahmad
Abu Ahmad

If you've been following us the last few weeks, you know we had quite an eye-opening and moving time in Athens, Greece, where thousands of refugees are suspended in a sort of no man's land, hoping for a life where their own lives are not threatened. Most of them have lost friends or family members in one of the many conflicts in the Middle East; many have family members already waiting for them in Germany. Although we were there less than two weeks, we will not soon forget the warmth with which we were welcomed every time we visited one of the camps. Most of the people we met were Syrians, but there were also Afghanis, Iraqis, and Palestinians.

Since we were planning on Berlin as our next stop on this European odyssey, we offered to visit the fiancee of one young Palestinian man who grew up as a refugee in Syria. His fiancee is in Berlin with her family -- one of the few intact families we've met. We also arranged to visit the 17-year-old son of a Syrian father (pictured above) of nine in the Athens camp, who is in Greece with another son and two daughters while his wife and other children are scattered across Germany. (We still don't fully understand why family members are so often split up in different cities in their host country.) In this account, we are using made-up names to protect the identities of the people involved.


Adara, a 19-year-old Syrian girl with large brown eyes and long, beautiful hair, lives with her parents and two sisters in a plain apartment building in a southern suburb of Berlin. I had reached her father by phone to arrange the meeting, but he was away visiting his brother in the hospital when we arrived. After handing over my passport to the guard at the entrance to the shelter for asylum seekers, Becky and I waited until a young man in his thirties arrived to welcome us. With a kind manner and very good English, Abdul introduced himself as Adara's uncle. He took us to the family's small, no-frills apartment, where Adara greeted us at the door. She was not wearing a hijab (head scarf). Abdul and Adara led us to a bedroom, where we sat on twin beds facing each other, with a small table in between. This was the only room we saw in the apartment. But it was an apartment, complete with plumbing and electricity -- not a tent. Becky gave Adara the card written by her fiancé, Jalal, along with some chocolates and flowers we had picked up in Berlin. She fought back tears after reading Jalal's brief note, and went on to offer us glasses of water -- even though it was Ramadan, and neither she nor her uncle would have a drop of water or anything else until after sundown. She then brought us glasses of some kind of tasty grapefruit soda. (We've learned by now that it does no good to say no, thank you.)

We spent the next few minutes in a trilingual chat with the two of them -- speaking German to her and English to him, and he sometimes translating into Arabic for her. She was warm, poised, and gracious, just like all the other Syrian women we had met. She spoke of her intensive German language study, never letting on that this is probably the biggest ordeal she's ever been through. (Note: this week's podcast will include the aspect of German language learning as an important part of new immigrants' cultural integration.) Abdul, whom we took an immediate liking to, talked mainly about how grateful he was for the option of being safe in Germany.


After 30-45 minutes, Adara's parents arrived from the hospital. The dad was much larger in every way than his brother-in-law, Abdul -- more outspoken, more demonstrative -- a big teddy bear of a man. His wife was young-looking, all smiles, and wore the traditional hijab. Our time, by then, was unfortunately growing short, as we had to reach the opposite end of the city for our next appointment.

After photos, we said our goodbyes a little earlier than we would have liked, and headed back for the train station. I had set up our meeting with young Nabil with one of the social workers who staff the group home where he lives along with other under-age immigrants. It is a fairly nice-looking building in a quiet northern suburb, although we didn't see the inside. Not seeing a main entrance, I rang a buzzer and was answered by a male German voice, who said Nabil had gone out to run errands or do some shopping -- even though it was now the agreed upon time of our meeting. A little discouraged, we walked a few feet down the sidewalk and discovered an entrance we hadn't seen, and there was Nabil taking his bike out. Although his father had shown us a photo of him, we needed no photo to recognize him. He had much the same handsome face as his younger brother (pictured at the top) whom we had befriended in the Athens camp.


Nabil has been in Germany about a year, which means he was sixteen when his parents sent him ahead to find some kind of new life for himself, and hopefully his family would follow. This is an apparently common strategy. As we talked with this soft-spoken young man with broken German, I could only imagine what it was like to come to a completely foreign land as a sixteen-year-old, not speaking a word of the local language and entirely dependent on survival skills and the kindness -- or not -- of the German staffers who handled his case. It turned out that the staffer I had spoken to, a young man named Robin, who joined us a few minutes later, was indeed kind and works for a private nonprofit to integrate under-aged immigrant arrivals.

Nabil was reserved, and because both his German and mine were limited, our communication was not great. I was frankly not even sure he was glad to see us, although his father had told him to expect us. He did manage a weak smile from time to time. God alone knows what this young man has been through and the survival mechanisms he has had to put in place. As we parted ways after no more than half an hour of chatting and trying to understand more of his story, Becky and I came away with more questions than anything else. How long would it take for Nabil to be integrated into German culture? How long before he could be reunited with his mother in the eastern German city of Leipzig, not to mention his father and siblings still in Greece? Coming from a group-oriented culture and then left on his own for so long, how would his eventual reunion with his family go? No one knows. Again.

The refugee situation in Europe, and indeed on other continents such as North America, is so complex that it is pretty much impossible to get your mind around it. What we can get our minds around is stories -- stories of families and individuals whose lives have been permanently altered.

Stay tuned for the next post, where we share a song that captures much of this tumult and uncertainty, written by our son and his brother-in-law/bandmate.

A Family Ruined for the Ordinary

World to the Wise Podcast

Meet my friend Dwane Thomas. Dwane and I have known each other for a number of years, and both live and work in the greater Nashville area. But this interview comes to you from Athens, Greece, where Dwane and his family, along with Becky and myself, have been volunteering with and observing some of the work going on among the many refugees stranded or waiting here in Greece. (You can hear more about that in my interview with the amazing Eleni Melirrytou.) But there's more about this remarkable family of seven. Before coming to Athens, they spent two months on the Greek island of Paros. I'll let Dwane tell you how he and his wife Gretchen came to lead their kids on that adventure, as well as how their contact with the refugees here in Athens has changed them. Dwane is also a language freak like yours truly, and we compare notes a little during this interview. He has some advice that you'll want to take to heart, especially if you're student or parent of a student.

At the end of the podcast we talk about the idea of going out into the streets of Athens and having fun reading signs and guessing what they mean. Recommended especially for word nerds!

Next week I'll be coming to you for the last time from Europe, where Becky and I have had our eyes opened, not only on the refugee situation but how it and other factors are changing the face of Europe. All blog posts and podcast episodes for the past several weeks deal with this subject in one way or another.

Now here's the video shot on the Athens streets by Jackson Thomas:

Resources mentioned in this episode:

Pickpockets and Perspective


It happened to me. Again. I was planning on keeping this latest incident to myself. Part of it was embarrassment, which really means pride. I should have seen it coming. I'm a seasoned traveler. I just published a podcast episode on being a wise traveler, for crying out loud.

The first time was in Lima, Peru, when my cell phone was pickpocketed. Then a few years later, a major incident in Amsterdam, where a brand new video camera, our credit cards, and passports were all taken in a split second. (Some time I'll have to tell that story -- pretty amazing how it turned out.)

On a tube train in London, my wife actually caught a pickpocket with his hand inside our son's backpack and thwarted his attempt.

In this case, we were on a metro (subway) train in Athens, headed to visit our new refugee friends at the port of Piraeus. It was already the most crowded train we'd been on here, and at one stop a group of guys got on at the same time. Amidst all the jostling, Becky and I got separated. I keep a hand on my "murse" on crowded trains and buses, but all I can figure is that during the pushing and shoving (orchestrated, I now realize), I must have been pushed off balance just long enough for a skilled hand to unzip my bag, reach inside, and pull out my wallet.

I looked down, seconds later, and discovered my bag was open. I immediately reached in, first felt my passport with great relief, but kept feeling for my wallet. Not there. I of course knew right away what had happened. I'm fairly sure the group got off at the next stop, and Becky and I decided to do the same in order to call and cancel our credit cards immediately.

I was so angry, especially because I realized how it had happened. For the first time in a long time, I wanted to hurt someone. But as much as anything, I was angry at myself. I should have seen it coming. There was only about 30 euros in cash, but two credit cards, a debit card, and my driver's license, which I will need to rent the car we're planning to rent in Paris later this week.

I'm at least grateful to have learned some lessons along the way, and part of being a wise traveler is keeping the phone numbers of all your credit card companies in a separate place. I was able to cancel all the cards and find out that none of them had yet been used by the perpetrators. We then asked my son's girlfriend to FedEx my newly renewed driver's license, which had providentially come in the mail at home, along with another credit card I hadn't taken with me, to a friend's house in Paris for me to pick up once we arrive there.

After that little incident I felt like going home. You really do feel violated when you've been robbed. I quickly realized, though, that going back to the apartment was the worst possible thing to do. What I needed most was perspective, and I knew I would find that at the camp. So we got on the next train, and sure enough, while talking with our friends who have lost everything and whose future is uncertain at best, my petty problem(s) quickly faded away.

Sure, it's been a bit of a hassle reconstructing our infrastructure while on the road, and yes, it's embarrassing for me to admit that this happened to moi -- again. But I'm actually almost grateful for the headache because it reminded me once again how much I have to be grateful for.

We are now in Berlin, where we are gaining a different perspective on the refugee situation in Europe. Be sure to tune in to the podcast this weekend to hear about it.

An Oasis in Athens

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What a week it has been here in Athens. Last week I shared with you some of our observations of the city itself. That was before our work with the refugees began. In this week's episode we share some of their stories -- not only from the camps, but from some of the people reaching out to them here. In particular, one dynamo of a lady named Eleni Melirrytou, a pastor's wife from a small church in the heart of Athens. My wife and I have been tremendously impacted just watching this lady, and she herself has been changed, as you will hear, by her relationship with the dozens and dozens of refugees who have come through her doors just since January of this year.

After listening to her, you just might find yourself wanting to know more -- or maybe even join her and her team in Athens for a week, a month, or longer. If that's the case, you can email Eleni at, or find her on Facebook.

Next week we'll be coming to you from Germany, considered the Promised Land by many of the refugees. Some already have family waiting for them there. We're curious to see what things look like on that end, and I hope you'll join us.

Hopeful and Hopeless in Athens


My wife and I have been in Athens for a week. We've experienced a bizarre juxtaposition of emotion and experience: on one hand, we're seriously exploring the possibility of including this great city in a World to the Wise cultural tour at some point in the future, so we spent the first few days exploring this city that began casting a long shadow almost 3,000 years ago. From the obviously stunning sights like the Acropolis, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Ancient Agora and the Roman Forum to the neighborhood Greek Orthodox churches that have been calling the faithful for over 1,000 years, to the warmth of the Greek people themselves, we have predictably fallen in love with the city.

On the other hand, we are also here to volunteer with a nonprofit reaching out to the thousands of refugees currently stranded here in Greece. Meeting them and listening to their stories is nothing short of heartbreaking. We have visited them in camps at Pyraeus, the port of Athens, as well as in what are called squats -- abandoned buildings such as schools, where they set up tents in the classrooms and attempt to make the best of a desperate situation.

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I spent some time talking to a small group of Syrian men at the port. Their tents are grouped around one of the port terminal buildings, apparently not currently in use. They greeted me warmly, led by a man in his 40s who was the best English speaker and served as the group's mouthpiece. All of them have family (or a fiancee in one case) waiting for them in Germany, and are themselves waiting to be processed. This can mean waiting for a first interview, or for a second one months away. And in the meantime, they wait, forming temporary family units as there is virtually no such thing as an intact family in the camps. More than one young man spent months in prison for refusing to serve in Bashar Al Assad's army. If they set foot back in Syria, they are imprisoned or worse.

But these men have some form of hope. They hope to eventually be admitted into Germany or another northern European country and reunited with their loved ones. This is what prevents them from despair.

English lesson
English lesson

Others are not so fortunate. Becky and I spent some time talking with and teaching English to a small group of Afghani women yesterday. Two of them are sisters and one is a sister-in-law. Two out of three were widowed by the Taliban. They lost everything to escape with their lives, paying $3000 per person to be whisked away in the night by car. They are now a family unit in themselves, along with the eleven or so children between them.

Their biggest problem is that Afghanistan is currently not recognized by the powers that be (UN, EU, etc.) as a nation at war, so there is no way these ladies can be granted political asylum. They were granted permission to stay one month in Greece, and that was four months ago. So now they wait, illegally, but with nowhere to go and no known recourse.

I was struck by their warm smiles and upbeat manner the entire time -- that is, until they began to tell, through the 17-year-old daughter who spoke decent English, about their ordeal. The more she told, the more their countenances all fell and revealed the utter exhaustion and despair they must be living with constantly. They only get 2-3 hours of sleep in the building where they are being housed because of the incessant crying of small children through the night, and the 3 days a week they come to the church facilities where we are based are an oasis in more ways than one.

So Becky and I live each day in this bizarre blend of adventure and discovery, and heartbreak and unanswerable questions, while a Syrian man, separated from his family, sweeps the eight square feet of parking lot outside the tent he calls home.

Be sure to tune in to my podcast this week for more updates and stories.

Postcard from Switzerland

(Note: see below for a correction of an error in this week's episode.)

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This episode comes to you from beautiful Switzerland, where I am currently doing a short series of concerts with my old friends and partners in crime, François and Christine Reymond. As I've mentioned earlier, the primary purpose of this trip to Europe, however, is to observe and document some of the enormous changes the European continent is going through, and I couldn't resist the urge to check into some of the developments in Switzerland along these lines. I was all the more interested since I've spent six years of my life in this country.

Here's a table of contents of this episode:

Chapter One - a crash course on Switzerland, just to make sure we're on the same page and that you're tracking with me

Chapter Two - walking the streets of Lausanne (where I lived in two different stints) with a good friend, who happens to be a policeman

Chapter Three - the changing face of Switzerland through the eyes of a high school vice principal

Chapter Four - an encounter with some refugees in Switzerland


Join us next week, when we'll be coming to you from Athens, Greece!

Correction: if you listened to the segment on my interview with Lionel the policeman, you heard me mention drug dealers on a Lausanne city square at night. I mistakenly understood Lionel to say they were Eritreans; they are instead of other African nationalities, but rarely Eritreans. I apologize for the error.

The Fiddler Is Still on the Roof


While browsing through hundreds of photos on a computer at home, looking for a good photo of my mother for Mothers' Day, I came across this photo of myself as Tevye in Lifesong Theatre Group's production of Fiddler on the Roof. The next morning, I turned on NPR in the car and got in on the end of a Studio 360 story on the history of the Broadway musical, two years after its 50th anniversary. Fiddler is one of the highest grossing, longest running in Broadway history. The photo alone was enough to take me back to an emotion-packed experience for me. In some ways I found myself relating to Tevye's ongoing dialog with God, particularly, at that time in my life, his complaints to God about his circumstances. The fact that he felt free to openly address his concerns to God revealed a very present faith on the one hand, with room for doubts and questions on the other.

The story of Fiddler, which originated as a series of short stories published in 1894 called Tevye the Dairy Man by Sholom Aleichem,  continues to resonate on so many levels. In an age where cultural change is only accelerating, it challenges our ability to deal with change while reexamining the traditions we hold dear. It also reminds us, as Tevye and his family and friends are driven out of the village of Anatevka by the Bolsheviks and face a new life in America, that in the 21st century we are all nations of immigrants. The story takes us inside the mind and heart of someone who is being forced from their centuries-long homeland, giving the word "refugee" a face and a life.

In the United States, we have talked so much about the American dream and the Land of Opportunity that we risk assuming everyone wants to come here -- unless we ourselves have experienced what it's like to huddle with the few we know, longing for home, against a mass of strangers in a strange land.

These are the people my wife and I are soon going to be meeting in Greece. For them, the fiddler still represents the precarious balance between keeping traditions and dealing with change. I look forward with mixed emotions to the experience. I'm pretty certain that I'm not quite prepared for the barrage of emotions awaiting us, but I'm quite certain one of them will be a feeling of helplessness against the plight of the Syrians, Afghans and others who have been forced out of their homes.

I'll be documenting our experiences on this blog, as well as occasional vlogs and possibly Blab sessions. Stay tuned for an adventure that you're invited to live with us vicariously. Better yet, sign up below as a member of the "culturally curious"  tribe so you don't miss a thing.

Dave Dillard Interview

World to the Wise Podcast

My wife Becky and I have been very impacted by the plight of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have flooded into Europe in the past year, primarily from war torn countries such as Syria. Thousands of these men, women and children are currently stranded in Greece, their point of arrival in Europe. We have committed to volunteering in Greece this summer with a Nashville-based nonprofit called Servant Group International, whose executive director is Dave Dillard. Turn up your curiosity and listen to Dave's wisdom and experience. You'll also learn about the world's largest ethnic group without a home state.

Sometimes It's Easier to Just Put on Adele


Maybe you've seen the SNL sketch. The Thanksgiving table brings together not only family members with differing opinions, but also significant others of those family members. Let's face it: sometimes it's harder to be with family members we don't see very often than the friends we live life with on a regular basis. Sometimes it's just easier to put on Adele.

Whatever the case, what's in order is a little more listening, a little more level-headedness, and yes, the ability to laugh at ourselves.

That's why I've created the World to the Wise podcast. Sometimes someone else's story is what we need to hear in order to look at life through another set of lenses.

Some people are born curious. Others have to cultivate curiosity -- and it can be done. I can tell you that in many ways I am more curious than I was when I was younger. And the more I discover about the world around me, the richer I am.

I'm richer after hearing the story of Dr. Ming Wang, who came from the oppression of the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960's to become one of the world's top laser physicists and eye surgeons. Or Chris Guillebeau, who set out on a quest to visit every country on the planet. Or a biracial couple living in the American South, a Christian university professor who believes we need to think differently about Muslims, or a German couple working with Syrian refugees to get them integrated as quickly as possible in their new home. These are ordinary people with extraordinary stories of crossing cultural bridges.

The first two stories mentioned are now released and waiting for you to hear. The others are in the pipeline. Just click here to listen to the individual episodes, or click on the World to the Wise graphic on the right to subscribe. When you do, it would be great if you would take a minute and write a quick review. This will go a long way to getting us noticed in the searches.

Here's to cultural curiosity -- we've only just started!

Border Blues


My wife and I both have memories of numerous stops at national borders in Europe in the 80's and 90's. Passports were stamped, currency was changed -- in fact, we often had to carry four or five different currencies with us, depending on the number of countries we were going to be traveling through. The number of stamps in our passports shrank dramatically, however, with the creation of the Schengen Area.

Many people think the open borders in Western Europe coincided with the creation of the Euro zone, but in fact, they were and are two separate entities. I have to confess to not knowing until today where the name "Schengen" comes from: it is the name of the town in Luxembourg where the agreement between 22 of the 28 countries of the then European Community was signed. The idea was to facilitate travel between these countries, effectively becoming a single country as far as international travel is concerned. (The Euro zone came later, establishing the euro as the common currency for nineteen member states in 2000.)

Today, the open borders are a subject of great tension and debate. Over one million refugees have flooded into the Schengen Area, creating enormous strain on a system that most Europeans don't want to see reversed. And yet, the 20-year-old agreement seems on the breaking point. Even the countries whose arms were the most open to welcome the hundreds of thousands of migrants, such as Germany, Sweden and Denmark, are reining in their liberal policies as they groan under the weight. The Danish parliament has even passed a plan where border officials can seize any assets above $1450 from migrants, as long as said items are considered non-essential and have no sentimental value.

It's looking possible that the open borders of the Schengen area could be suspended for up to two years. It could be hello again to long lines and waits at border crossings, something the younger generation knows nothing about.

But more importantly, the fate of the refugees who continue to stream into Europe, primarily through Greece, remains uncertain at best. My wife and I have been greatly impacted by this situation -- stay tuned for further developments as we look at possible ways to be of service.