“You Are Our Mother Teresa”

(July 2013: Don’t miss the update to this story at the end of the post!)

No matter how much help we may have been to Mustafa and Lydia, we weren’t really comfortable when they likened us to the modern-day saint Mother Teresa. At the same time, since Mother Teresa was Albanian, it was understandable that this ethnic-Albanian couple would think in terms of this lover and champion of the poor.

We met Mustafa, Lydia, and their children in the winter of 1998. Lydia was nearly due to deliver their fifth child but was so thin and malnourished that she hardly looked pregnant. They and other Kosovar Albanian refugees were living in a freezing-cold abandoned Coca-Cola factory just outside of Sarajevo, Bosnia. The government of Bosnia, which was still recovering from a devastating civil war itself, sympathized with their plight but couldn’t offer them more than the damp, mold-covered walls to house them and the  tin roof over their heads.

We had gone to visit this makeshift refugee center to distribute humanitarian aid and perform for the children. We didn’t have much time to get to know Mustafa and Lydia during that first brief encounter, but were happily surprised to bump into them again a few weeks later in another city. They had been moved into a “transit center.” This shelter was a little better in that it was at least moderately heated, but the air was so stale and humid that tuberculosis was spreading rapidly. We began delivering aid to this center regularly, and each time we would visit we would prepare a special package for Mustafa, Lydia, and their children — especially for Lydia and their unborn baby.

Then they were moved again. The Bosnian government had finally finished building an “official” refugee camp where the ever-mounting number of Kosovar refugees could have better conditions. This camp, consisting of wooden barracks that housed up to six people per small room, was in an isolated area of central Bosnia, a three-hour drive from the town in Bosnia where we were living. We felt like they were now our “adopted” refugee family, and we would visit them as often as we could.

Finally, Lydia’s baby came — a beautiful baby girl. It’s a miracle that both survived, considering Lydia’s frail condition. We continued bringing them whatever we could gather. During each visit they insisted on treating us like kings with what very little they had. They served us the traditional Turkish coffee and biscuits, and sometimes juice. They had adopted us as much as we had adopted them.

Not long after the U.N. determined that it was safe for Kosovar refugees to return, word reached Mustafa and Lydia’s camp that they would soon be repatriated and able to return home. Of course, no one knew how much “home” would be left. On our last visit to their camp, we told them that we were planning to begin humanitarian aid trips to Kosovo from our base in Bosnia, and they gave us their family name and the name of their town. There are no street addresses in rural Kosovo, but in the villages thankfully pretty much everyone knows everyone.

Several months later we drove to their village, the crumpled piece of paper bearing their family name in hand, hoping to find someone who knew them. The first person we met said he thought he knew where they lived, and offered to show us the way. Even after working for three years in war-torn Bosnia, we were shocked by the condition of the area he led us to — utter devastation! We couldn’t believe that anyone could be living in the shells of those houses that remained. After winding our way down some muddy back tracks, we pulled up to a high wall with peeling institutional green paint and banged on the metal door. A moment later, it was opened by a wide-eyed Mustafa smiling from ear to ear!

The reunion was a joyous one! We had come bearing as many gifts for the family as our van could carry. Their house had been burned out, but they had managed to restore one room where they could all sleep and keep warm.

We continued our trips from Bosnia to Kosovo for the next nine months, and then moved to Kosovo when the bulk of our work shifted there. We continued to see Mustafa, Lydia, and their children regularly. The baby that marked the beginning of our relationship was growing big and strong. They struggled to rebuild their house and lives, but we’re thankful for how we could play a small part and be the Lord’s hands to help them recover from the tragedy that was the Kosovo conflict.

“Mother Teresas?” Far from it. Simple Christian volunteers, trying to change a small part of the world with God’s love? Yes!

(Update: July, 2013):

After our departure from Kosovo in 2004 we did not see Mustafa, Lydia, or their children for nearly 10 years. Then in the spring of 2013 we received a message on our website from one of their now grown daughters saying she had found us on the internet, and could we please write them. We talked on Skype and shared what had been happening in our respective lives, and finally in July we were able to visit them once again and help them with humanitarian aid. They are still poor, still live in the same house (although with some nice improvements), children are growing, one is married with two kids of her own, and still regarding us as some angels sent from God to help them during the most difficult period of their lives! We are just happy that we could be of service and have the opportunity to share God’s unfailing love with them! See the photo below!

Mustafa & Lydia in front of their house with donated food and other household items