I was Homeless and You Cared for Me

by Fr. Luke A. Veronis

Fr. Luke Veronis and his wife Faith have been assigned by the Orthodox Church in American to assist His Beatitude Anastasios, Archbishop of Tirana and All Albania. Much of their work in recent months has focused on projects to serve the needs of refugees from Kosovo. This is an extract from his diary.

Across the street, we have Mimosa and her extended family of 45 Kosovar refugees living in two rooms, neither of which is larger than 20 by 15 feet. Two of the matriarch’s sons and two grandsons are still in Kosova, whether dead or alive, no one knows. Each day this family struggles to find enough food for all their children, which includes five infants under the age of 12 months.

In our building, Violtsa and her family are doing fine physically, but they struggle emotionally. Their home was burned by Serbian militia. Violtsa’s two brothers are still in Kosova. Their future is uncertain. And recently her sister-in-law’s nine-year-old niece, still in Kosova, died. How? Violtsa explained that she fell into a coma from the constant fear of NATO bombing and never recovered. In Tirana’s two maternity hospitals, my wife Faith hears countless tragic stories. Almost half the women have husbands still in Kosova — unsure whether they’re dead or alive. Some women have given birth to their babies in the mountains on their way to Albania. One woman recently gave birth to her child in the taxi on the way to the hospital.

Mira and her two-month-old baby hesitated to leave the hospital because she and her child stay in a small, empty room, which has only two blankets on the floor. No where to sleep or keep the baby. How could her baby stay healthy in such conditions?

Faith has witnessed numerous miscarriages in the last trimester, several stillborns, and other babies who died in the initial days of life. Three days ago, a set of twins died. The probable cause is the constant stress the women have endured — pregnant mothers fleeing their homes, walking hours or even days under harsh circumstances, worrying about their husbands, and then staying in unhygienic conditions for long periods.

The stories are heartrending. The pain is unimaginable. The need is unending. And how many other tragic stories here, in Kosova, and in Serbia.

If there is a bright spot, I think it is in the way that so many common people are reaching out. Although Albania is Europe’s poorest country, and probably the least fit to assist 400,000 refugees (equivalent to approximately 12 percent of her population; that would be like the US taking in 30 million refugees), Albanians have responded in a herculean manner. Elderly couples living on a $50 per month pension willingly take in a family of four. Numerous people open their newly built homes for families of 30, 45, and even 55 Kosovars to stay. In the case of the refugee family of 45 that lives across the street, the surrounding neighbors share what little food they have to help them survive.

In a limited way, we also are trying to help. Faith continues to support pregnant mothers and newborns. She has delivered packages of clothing and baby supplies to 140 women. And through her initial contact, she has helped arrange for other needs of these women and their families — whether buying medicines, arranging special post-hospital care, paying funeral costs, transporting them to their camps, and even delivering food and mattresses to their homes.

Along with other responsibilities, I’ve been organizing volunteers for one of the camps which is sponsored by the Action by Churches Together/Orthodox Church’s Diaconia Agapes effort. Our seminarians have been going three times a week, setting up tents, sorting and distributing clothing, loading and unloading trucks, and simply interacting with the Kosovars. It’s been a blessed and educational experience both for our students and for the refugees. Also, a group of 25 students from our Orthodox University Group have been regularly going to play with the children, and to offer a loving witness among the people.

In another effort we organized, our seminarians prepared and distributed 25kg food and supply packages for more than 150 Kosovar families (approximately 1,700 persons) living in the village surrounding our seminary.

Next week, we plan on delivering mattresses, clothing and baby food to these same families.

And whenever we find time, we visit homes and deliver food packages, mattresses and blankets to the countless refugees throughout Tirana. Tonight, for example, we visited five houses where a total of 124 refugees live. Each home has a unique and often depressing story. Their needs are overwhelming and unending.

Our help is limited. And yet, we offer whatever we can. I’ve come to a new understanding of Christ’s words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” How blessed we truly are to be on the end which has, and to be able to give, as opposed to the side which waits, often with hunger and suffering, to receive.