Akram is a 16 years old boy. He’s from Syria, but currently lives with his mother and two siblings in an abandoned three-story school in Athens. He’s been a smoker since age 12 and has a swagger about him that is immediately obvious–the kind unique to boys his age.
I first met Akram as he sits on a plastic bucket smoking a cigarette. He’s taking a break from working in the refugee kitchen. While today is the day the Afghanis cook for all the families in the school, Akram, the Syrian boy, is helping. I discover that he does that a lot. For example, just after I met him, a young woman dropped her coffee and her drink splattered the porch. Akram was first up, grabbing a squeegee and cleaning up the mess. He is a helper plain and simple–it’s how he’s wired and it flows naturally from him.
The coffee cleaning instance is the moment I initiate conversation with Akram and I find him affable and easy to talk with. I affirm his helping nature and relate it to the heart of God, who is, Himself, a servant. He soaks this compliment up like a dry sponge plunged in water. He’s hungry for affirmation in part because his father isn’t with the family; he’s in Germany. When his family fled Syria, they made it to the safety of Greece, at which point his father went ahead to Germany to find work. The plan was for his family to follow, but now the northern border of Greece is closed and the family is stuck, separated from him. Akram tells me that his mother and brothers will be joining their husband and father in a couple of months. In the back of my mind I wonder how many times his mother, who bears the weight of family morale, has given him this answer when Akram has asked when they will see their father again. I’m silently sad, knowing that his family’s reuniting may be a long shot as the border is closed indefinitely and the recent flurry of terrorist attacks in Europe doesn’t make travel any easier for refugees.
I ask Akram to tell me why he left Syria and he shares this story. When he was twelve, his father was arrested and thrown into jail for speaking against Assad. Something Akram says his father never did. Akram was with his father when the police came and he was taken to jail, too. For seven days they were held, often with their hands tied above their heads. He tells me this as he holds his arms above his head so I can visualize the scene. He points to scars on his arms where the authorities cut him with razor blades. He shows me a scar on his leg which he said came as he was beaten with some sort of rod. It was his first time in jail, but not his last. When they were released the last time, his family gathered their belongings and fled through Turkey to Greece. His father had gone ahead to Germany, while his mother and brothers somehow found themselves squatters, settled in the abandoned school. Little food, no education, and a future overshadowed by a question mark. At first glance, Akram appears to be a cocky teenager (like I was years ago), but he’s got a story of pain just below the surface.
The truth is that everyone has a story of pain, but, like Akram, we keep it under the surface in order to survive and make it through the day. After all, it’s not like you can just open up to everyone. There seem to be so few safe places. So few safe people.
After becoming friends with Akram, I know that I want to be one of those safe places. I want to be someone that looks beyond just taking care of my own needs. I want to be a person who looks after the needs of others. I want to slow down. I want to be a better listener. Most of all though, I want to be generous in sharing the love and comfort that I’ve experienced in my relationship with Jesus. My life’s different because of Him–different for real–and I know Jesus wants to burst through the pain and busyness of life and reveal His reality to others. He cares for people–including you–and he can heal the pain that’s under the surface.