Southern Baptists rush aid to Kosovo refugees
TIRANA, Albania (BP) -- Southern Baptists have sent an eight-member task force into Albania to help cope with the flood of Kosovar refugees that swells literally by the hour.
Seven missionaries arrived in Tirana from Bosnia on April 9 to set up a food distribution program, led by Bill Steele, a missionary based in Sarajevo. They are working with a $100,000 appropriation from Southern Baptists' International Mission Board. The seven joined missionary Lee Bradley of Anniston, Ala., who already was serving in Tirana as a church planter.
On site for less than a week, the workers already had rented a warehouse in central Tirana and begun assembling packets of provisions that included flour, beans, sugar, salt, cooking oil, yeast, soap, onions and potatoes. Steele estimates that each $10 worth of supplies can feed a family of four for about a week.
Workers hoped to distribute 1,000 food boxes a week, enough to feed 4,000 people, and perhaps be able to double that number. They also are distributing blankets against the cold Albanian nights, mattresses, diapers, cleaning materials, coats and clothes.
The team had been able to buy food locally, which not only allowed them to fill orders immediately but also helped the sagging Albanian economy, Steele said. A wide range of evangelical Christians are working together to bring physical and spiritual relief to Muslim Kosovars and Albanians who need to hear the good news of God's love.
For now, Southern Baptists are targeting Albanian families who have taken thousands of the Kosovo refugees -- who also are ethnic Albanians -- into their homes. One Baptist family has 22 people crowded into a two-story house on the outskirts of Tirana.
Baptists also sent four tons of supplies to Kukes, the key town in northern Albania where thousands of refugees pour in daily. Plans were being made to set up a distribution center in the coastal city of Lezhe, where a large congregation hopes to feed up to 1,000 refugees a week.
Most international aid programs, like the Red Cross, have directed relief efforts at the ever-growing refugee camps around Albania's borders. Baptist workers felt the needs of refugees living in private homes would largely go unmet.
Many of the refugees have escaped with little more than the clothes on their backs and will have no homes to go back to in the Kosovo area of Yugoslavia because homes have been torched by troops there.
At Kukes, the border crossing point in northern Albania, hundreds of families are camping out under flimsy plastic sheets spread over trailers pulled behind their tractors. They are afraid to leave their tractors, vital to the farms most of them work, and move into the camps. So they sit huddled in uncertainty.
The flood of refugees is particularly difficult to manage in Albania, Europe's poorest country. The collapse of pyramid-style investment schemes in 1997 brought financial ruin to many of Albania's 3 million people. The resulting riots led the country into virtual civil war that lasted for months. By the time order was restored, many Albanians had lost hope in their country and only wanted out.
"In Albania, everybody wants to leave. They've given up on their country," said Jonathan Steeper, a Canadian Baptist who is general manager of the Baptist Foundation of Tirana. Steeper said he knew of one family earning only about $100 a month that had saved $5,000 in hopes of leaving.
Now this struggling country is being host to hundreds of thousands of refugees as ethnic Albanians flee Yugoslavia. Thousands of Albanians opened their homes up to the refugees, but the Albanians have limited resources for such support.
The Southern Baptist missionaries in Tirana are working closely with the Baptist Foundation of Tirana, an organization uniting many Baptist organizations. British Baptists have 14 workers in Tirana, for example. Southern Baptists also are cooperating with the Salvation Army, British Missionary Society, Dutch Christians and other believers in the effort. Swedish Baptists sent 20 tons of baby food to help in the crisis, for example, and Hungarian Baptists also sent 20 tons of food.
Baptists are working with a group of small but growing evangelical churches to link physical aid with Christian witness. The Southern Baptist missionaries plan to turn over their warehouse operation to Albanian Christians as soon as possible.
"It is amazing to see churches come together as the body of Christ," said Southern Baptist missionary Dwayne Doyle. "This has been a wonderful witness to young believers."
As of April 16, Southern Baptist churches and individuals had given $95,746.79 for relief efforts among Kosovo refugees. Every penny donated is used solely for direct relief efforts. Contributions may be sent to: Office of Finance, International Mission Board, P.O. Box 6767, Richmond, VA 23230.
Updates on refugee ministry efforts are being posted under the "Front Page News" link on the IMB's website, www.imb.org.
Editors’ Note: The seven missionaries who came from Bosnia to help with relief efforts in Albania are: Roy Boudoin of Florence, Ala.; Dwayne Doyle of Pucket, Miss.; Donna Robinson of Bakersfield, Calif.; Darcie Sarnoski of Northboro, Mass.; Stephen Deese of Little Rock, Ark.; Connie Davis of Williamsburg, Va.; and Tim Berry of Royal, Ark.