Our final destination before the one-night stop for our early morning flight out of Copenhagen–was Hamburg, Germany. Shaun and I had just come from the Czech Republic, where we visited Prague (shoutout to Daniel, Austin and the many Döner kebabs we ate that weekend).
An 8-hour train ride from Prague to Hamburg was made more bearable by new German friends we met on the train, who we taught how to play the American game “Rummy” with our Greek-themed playing cards. Funny how cultures were thrown together like that. We became friends, and we exchanged travel tips about America’s west coast for tips on visiting their lovely home city, Hamburg.
Hamburg is a port city in the northern part of Germany. With 36 rivers that run around or through it, Hamburg is separated into island-like segments and has been called the “City of Bridges” by the travel site, amusingplanet.com. There’s a vibrant city life too, but Shaun and I were first drawn to Hamburg for neither of these reasons. We came because of an email we had received from two christian aid workers who had just recently returned there. They had heard about us traveling (through the grapevine), and mass email was sent out (little known to Shaun and I) by my grandmother to her mission friends who lived in the countries we were visiting. The hope was for us to meet with locals in the area who loved Jesus and could show us around their city. Until Germany, we hadn’t been able to meet with any of the contacts although many of the aid workers had reached out to us.
Our new friends (whose names will be protected) suggested we meet for dinner at one of the Afghan restaurants near the Central Station. I readily agreed, glad that we would finally be able to meet a missionary.
Before dinner, though, Shaun and I had time to visit one of the places our train friends had recommended, and I think it’s worth mentioning. The place was Duhnen Beach, on the North Shore of Germany. It was beautiful. We had visited some pretty exquisite beaches thus far, having seen Cinque Terre in Italy and the Island of Corfu in Greece just two weeks before. But Duhnen wasn’t attractive because of immaculately clear water, sunny cliffs or warm sand. Instead, the shore had a long bank of white sand, seaweed and cloudy overcast. But for 4-6 hours each day, the ocean’s tide fades out for about a mile and a half, allowing you to walk far out onto the ocean’s floor before the waves roll back in. We talked and walked along the ocean floor, watched the tide roll back in, and grabbed some cheesecake and German beer (separately, of course) before heading back, and it was more than worth the hour train ride from Hamburg’s Central Station.
That night, we met with our new acquaintances in part of Hamburg we hadn’t yet seen–the Refugee side. Fruit stands, farmer’s markets and Middle Eastern jewelry shops made up this side of town, and walking through these streets we learned that about the 300 refugees that arrive every day in Hamburg, having traveled for months from places like Serbia, Syria, Pakistan, Iran and Montenegro.
Many of the refugees are solo travelers, having left their families behind, lost their families due to political turmoil or due to the dangerous route to Germany. Most refugees seek asylum, the aid workers told us, with nothing except the clothes they are wearing. The workers, Shaun, myself and two other friends who were visiting baked a few dozen cookies that afternoon and brought them to one of the camps nearby. The kids shyly approached at first, but warmed up to us very quickly (the cookies were a tremendous help). Within a matter of minutes, we were playing jumprope, making bracelets, and playing “airplane” with kids in the middle of the camp. Some of the adult men (mainly older brothers or fathers) came out to play with the kids as well, and we were able to meet other adults.
Parents of the children invited us into their container homes for Coca-Cola and coffee. A man from Serbia led us up the stairs to the top container, where refugees from Serbia and Montenegro temporarily lived.
Inside the container, women were caring for infants and toddlers. They told us some about their long journey to Hamburg. This was Stefan’s third time traveling to Hamburg seeking asylum. If he was denied again, he would try going to Holland – maybe. His mother and her family (his half-brother and step-father) were already in Germany when he arrived, but they were seeking asylum separately as a family unit, so Stefan would seek it alone. As we were talking, two young boys started to wrestle and fight on the play set. He quickly reprimanded them. Tearfully, the boys pleaded their case before parting to play with their other friends.
It was then that Stefan started to tell me about some of the struggles within the camp. Disdain between some of the middle eastern countries can sometimes cause strife between children and families in the camps. For example, ethnocentrism was not uncommon. Serbian children will be playing in the yard and discover another child is from Albania. If one is from Albania and another from Serbia, Stefan said, sometimes a fight will erupt and families may even get involved.
Stefan admitted it was difficult, but he had nothing to return to in Serbia. No house, work, or opportunity. “The economy — it’s oppressive,” he said. That’s why he was seeking asylum in Hamburg.
His story was less traumatic than some of the others who were fleeing the Islamic State or wars in Syria, with serious danger behind them and uncertainty ahead. But talking with Stefan gave me a perspective on what life is like for Germany’s refugees, and how great their risk and needs are. I was thankful that we were able to bring a small gift of food and friendship, and still pray for their practical needs.
Further, I was thoroughly impressed with the way the city of Hamburg handled the influx of migrants and how the people of Hamburg had stepped up to contribute. The city built a place for refugees to take shelter while charities, mission groups and churches continued to provide for some of the basic food and clothing needs. Hamburg is still working towards handling the influx of individuals seeking asylum, and more and more are finding refuge in European countries across Europe.
Germany was the last place we visited before our flight home, and I was immensely thankful that our friends had allowed us to see the incredible work and ministry they are doing for these people who have suffered much, have very little, and seek the same levels of safety, comfort and health that we have here in America, where we ended our journey just two short days later with new perspectives, tender hearts and thankful hearts also.
For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;
he is to be feared above all gods.
26 For all the gods of the nations are idols,
but the Lord made the heavens.
27 Splendor and majesty are before him;
strength and joy are in his dwelling place.
I Chronicles 16:25-27