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Young Baptist ministry in Albania key aid channel to Kosovar refugees

TIRANA, Albania (BP)–An extended family of dozens of men, women and children — cooking on a bare floor and sitting on lawn chairs in an empty room offered by an Albanian family — accepts with gladness several boxes of food, foam mattresses and blankets brought to them by a local Baptist pastor and volunteers from his church.
A small handicapped boy, whose father had to carry him on the long walk from their village in Kosovo to Albania, is measured in a Christian clinic for a new wheelchair.
Last year, a young Kosovar pastor, Bekim Beka, left his home for Albania and began a new ministry with Baptists in Tirana. A refugee himself, Beka was already in place when the crisis came and is directing Baptist refugee efforts for Kosovars forced out of Yugoslavia.
A refugee camp in Tirana set up around a swimming pool complex desperately needs a kitchen facility to feed several thousand refugees. They call for a man they heard could help, a Baptist missionary in the area who has been working for several years to help local Albanians develop tile and cement block-making businesses. He oversees construction of the kitchen in half the time the major relief organization running the camp expects. All the materials, training and people were in place, the missionary explains.
A network of evangelical groups has gathered around the Baptist Foundation of Tirana to coordinate a Christ-centered response to the needs of thousands of the 430,000-plus Kosovar refugees estimated to have entered Albania in recent months.
When they can pause to reflect, all those involved marvel at God’s timing not only in the past frantic weeks, but months and years before.
The coordinated effort to begin Baptist work in Albania eight years ago, under the European Baptist Federation, resulted in the Baptist Foundation of Tirana (BFT), an organizational structure that drew the attention and requests for cooperation from other evangelical groups that arrived in Albania in response to the refugee emergency. Churches that had set an independent course in their Christian outreach came together with Baptists and others to help distribute aid and make contacts with refugees in their areas. EBF, Baptist World Alliance, Hungarian Baptist Aid, Salvation Army, Samaritan’s Purse, International Mission Board, SBC, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Baptist Missionary Society, Canadian Baptist Ministries, the National Baptist Convention of Brazil and others were able to work through BFT to provide the funds needed locally to buy food, supplies, rent the warehouses and other essentials of a refugee ministry.
From the early days of the refugee crisis, Baptists through BFT established that they didn’t talk, they acted. When 20 tons of flour was provided for a modest refugee ministry in Albania last year, Jonathan Steeper, director of the Baptist Centre in Tirana, put it in a warehouse until it was needed. When the first refugees swarmed across the border in Kukes, Albania, last March, a call went out for help and Baptists loaded the flour on trucks and headed for Kukes.
A government spokesman there said to Bekim Beka, “The Baptists are the first to come with food, not promises.”
Statistics are constantly changing, but a recent weekly report from BFT included distribution of 736 food boxes (to feed up to four people), soap, baby food and hygiene products; 1,097 mattresses and 2,024 blankets; and 771 packets of disposable diapers.
These items are distributed to families living with host Albanian families that cannot afford to feed them. The refugees are located through registration lists and divided into geographic areas. The pastors and church volunteers from those areas take the aid items to the families. There are 16 churches taking aid to 5,000 refugees.
In association with other Christian agencies, most notably the Salvation Army, BFT is helping to feed thousands of refugees in camps around Tirana and soon also in other areas of Albania. In Hammalloj, a new camp for 50,000 people is being opened, and the Salvation Army is planning to feed 20,000 refugees daily. In Durres, the Albanian Bible Institute is being used for meeting the needs of 1,500 refugees in Durres led by BMS missionary Paul Towlson.
Various missions organizations are active as part of the BFT effort. The International Mission Board has provided both $135,000 for refugee aid and missionary Lee Bradley and a team of workers from their work in Bosnia to come to Tirana to set up the warehouse from which the food boxes are assembled and collected for distribution.
Baptist Missionary Society in Great Britain has both missionaries and volunteers working through churches and specialized ministries such as the ABC Medical Clinic in Tirana, which offers free medical care and medicine to Kosovar refugees. Many of the refugees arriving in Albania had to flee without their diabetes or heart medicine or eyeglasses, noted Yvonne Wheeler, BMS missionary nurse.
Her husband, BMS missionary David Wheeler, works with the tile and cement block-making enterprise. Albania’s economy has been so bad that early church-planting efforts had been hindered by especially the young men emigrating to find work. The goal was to provide jobs and contribute to church stability. When the refugee camp at the Tirana swimming pool called on him to build the kitchen, “We had the blocks ready, the warehouse ready, the lorry ready,” he said. They built it in three weeks instead of the expected six. “We felt the Lord was in it,” he added.
The spiritual need is no less critical than the physical.
Albanians and Kosovars are ethnically identified as Muslims. Most Albanians are not religious in any sense, but attendance at mosques around the refugee areas has increased because more Kosovars are practicing Muslims. Where there were 10 mosques in the country of Albania in 1990, there are now 1,500 new mosques built with outside money. Copies of the Koran are offered for free at the mosques.
Evangelicals helping the refugees also look for opportunities to tell them about the love of Christ expressed both in word and in the ways help is offered.
Sometimes they are able to return to a family and just sit and listen to their stories, as there is a great need for the refugees to be able to talk about their experiences.
One recent example of such a call was a visit Alfred “Fredi” Golloshi, an Albanian Baptist leader, made to a refugee family in Tirana to whom he takes food. They are staying in a borrowed set of rooms. They offer him a chair, the rest sit around the room on cushions. Their story, told mostly by a middle-aged mother, is heart-rending. From the village of Jakovica, Kosovars call it Jakova, in the past few months she had her husband taken away and shot. Then Serb soldiers came to their village, started burning homes and put all the people into two rooms of a house — men in one room, women and children in the other. Then the building was bombed. Her two teenaged daughters were killed, one decapitated by the bombing. She and a 13-year-old son escaped into nearby hills. They watched as for hours helicopters circled the village trying to shoot down anyone seen alive. They and other family members regrouped and fled to Albania.
They feel comfortable talking to Fredi. And grateful. “We are living on what you bring us,” the lady tells him.
Some of the refugees have asked about the Christian faith and have attended church services. A regular Kosovar worship service began May 21 at the Baptist Centre in Tirana. Bekim Beka said now is the time for people called to work with Kosovars to make the long-term commitment to come to Albania, learn the language and culture while working with the refugees. Then when the refugees return to Kosovo, the new workers can also go as part of a church-planting effort.

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  • Martha Skelton