Faith

Faced with a refugee crisis, she wondered: “What difference can I make?”

This story is part of a special series produced in collaboration with OM Singapore, which is celebrating 40 years of God’s faithfulness in missions this year.

Bridget Lee // September 24, 2021, 11:01 am

OM carolyn - Feat

All photos courtesy of Carolyn Elizabeth and Operation Mobilisation.

You might remember the heart-wrenching photo of a young Syrian boy whose body was found on a beach after a failed attempt to reach Greece. 

Billed as the year of the Europe’s refugee crisis, some 1.3 million people sought asylum in Europe in 2015, fleeing the escalating conflict in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Even more tragic was the fact that thousands lost their lives while trying to make that journey. 

It is against this backdrop that 24-year-old Carolyn Elizabeth found herself sent by Operation Mobilisation (OM) Singapore to work with the OM team in Athens.

For 20 months, she not only had the chance to interact with refugees and offer basic necessities in the form of hot meals and warm clothing – a big part of her role included working with local churches and international volunteers who wanted to help.

In 2015, the year of Europe’s biggest refugee crisis, many migrants made dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea to escape the war back home. For most of them, their first port of call was Greece.

From being involved in cultural awareness and health and safety training, to running children’s activities and language classes, Carolyn said: “I ended up wearing many different hats.”

Arriving in July 2015, she recalled how the refugee numbers peaked in the second half of that year. Greece was the first stop for most of these migrants, who were then gradually relocated to other countries in the European Union.

“God brought me there at the time where everything fell apart, so all my plans and the plans of the team were washed away,” she remarked.

However, as one of the few people who had experience in working with refugees, Carolyn couldn’t help but marvel at how she felt like she was there at the right place, at the right time.

Carolyn juggled many roles in serving the refugees, from distributing hot meals and warm clothing to running children’s activities and language classes.

Recounting the first time she worked with displaced people, Carolyn remembered how she had been part of a team that had gone to support villagers whose lives were disrupted by a volcanic eruption in South-east Asia.

They had lived as wealthy farmers for generations due to the rich soil around the volcano, but lost everything overnight when they had to be evacuated. 

“To say it was difficult for them is an understatement. Because of their agriculture, they were very well off, but the entire village suddenly had to live under one building,” she explained.

“They also had to relearn their skills, so that they could find jobs in the city and rent houses… All these things were very foreign to them and their culture because they were from a village.” 

While their struggles are certainly different from those escaping war-torn regions, Carolyn described how her first stint in missions pushed her from being primarily self-focused to others-focused, as she became aware of what God was doing in the lives of people around the world. 

DISCOVERING GOD’S HEART THROUGH MISSIONS

Fresh out of university with bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and biology, Carolyn was 21 when she first felt a pull towards the nations.

“When I finished my undergraduate studies, God put it on my heart to spend some more time deepening my relationship with Him, and to do that through missions,” she said, adding that she was still quite young in her faith at that time, having experienced God for herself only when she was 19.

After reaching out to several missions agencies, OM was the very first to get back to her with a personal email, asking to get to know her better.

Hearing the different testimonies from missionaries across the globe touched her heart, as well as the family-like atmosphere that she witnessed. A coffee chat with one of the OM Singapore staff, Jiamin Choo-Fong, also left a huge impact on her.

“We really connected over one thing. Both of us had lost our fathers in our teenage or young adult years,” shared Carolyn.

4 years, 31 countries: The fresh grad who exchanged the safe path for a journey on the seas

“It was one of the first deep conversations I had with someone else who had a similar experience, and we talked about the role that our relationship with God had played through that loss, and how He had used that to develop our Christian journey.

“For me, that was an affirmation from God as He seemed to be saying, ‘I’ve used her, and now I’m going to use you as well.’”

“… if God calls me, what better thing could I be doing than what God wants me to do? Nothing.”

Deciding that she would delay pursuing a master’s degree, Carolyn spent six months to study in a Bible college before joining OM.

However, once her term in South-east Asia was up, Carolyn felt that it still wasn’t the time for her to embark on further studies. Instead, she felt a call towards Greece. 

“To go to Greece, it meant putting my plans to go back to do my master’s degree on hold, which I had been saving up money for,” she elaborated.

“But if God calls me, what better thing could I be doing than what God wants me to do? Nothing.”

While Carolyn was initially overwhelmed by the rapidly rising refugee numbers, she realised that it was helpful to just focus on one day and one person at a time. Even the simple act of listening to their stories could make them feel better.

GIVING THE HOMELESS A FAMILY 

Reflecting on her experience in Greece, Carolyn shared that while there she discovered what it meant to live out the gospel.

Referring to the words of Jesus on feeding and clothing those in need, Carolyn quoted a Bible passage from Matthew 25:40: “… whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” 

She explained: “Because we are doing work with a spiritual purpose, we believe that that carries over into the physical actions we take.”

But Carolyn was also honest about the limitations that she faced on the ground.

“Sometimes, you want to give someone a meal, or give someone this or that, but you can’t. All you can really do is pray for them, and you have to learn that that’s enough,” she said.

How can we pray for Afghanistan?

In fact, early on in her journey, Carolyn found herself overwhelmed by the immense needs of the refugees and the brokenness she encountered.

She even wondered: “How can I, as one person, one organisation or anyone in the world, solve this?”

But Carolyn eventually learnt to focus on one day and one interaction at a time, to be there for that one person and hear their story. She realised that just the simple act of listening to them could make them feel better. 

While Carolyn thought that God’s message of hope for a better future would be the greatest comfort to the refugees who came to know Jesus, she observed that what seemed to resonate more was their new identity they had as children of God.

Having lost their homes, families, jobs and culture – everything that had formerly given them an identity of who they were – they were overjoyed to have a new identity as Jesus followers.

“The biggest lesson that I learnt when I was there is that God is so much more than what you think He is, or what we’ve experienced God to be,” she mused.

Sent to work with the OM team in Athens, Carolyn was amazed at how God led her there, since she was one of the few people who had experience in working with refugees.

At 29 years, Carolyn has just completed her Master of Business Administration and is working full-time for an international financial and fiduciary services firm in Canada.

“I joined OM in January 2013, and I was in OM full-time until the end of 2017. From then, I’ve been working part-time until recently,” she said, looking back at her 20s.

For young people who are thinking about exploring a stint in missions, Carolyn had two tips to share.

Start small: There are many opportunities for short-term work or local involvement for missions. Consider exploring a one-day or one-week event. There’s no pressure for you to go abroad or compare yourself with other missionaries. Just start where you are because that is where God has already placed you.

Don’t overthink it: Going for missions isn’t rocket science. You don’t have to go to Bible school for three years before signing up. While it is important to seek wisdom and counsel from leaders, pray about it yourself and don’t make it more complicated than it is.

“Go and be His gospel in the world and live it out in your life,” said Carolyn, ending off the interview with a gentle reminder as well as some encouragement.

“There’s no one who can’t be a missionary.”

Keen to go on a mission to live out the love of God among the nations? Explore opportunities at www.sg.om.org/go or  follow OM on Instagram and Facebook

To commemorate their 40th year, OM Singapore has also published a book, Unchanging: On Mission With a Faithful God, capturing 40 stories of Singaporeans who love God and His mission in many parts of the world. You can purchase the book here: www.sg.om.org/book

THINK + TALK 

  1. Have you ever felt that you (or someone you know) was positioned by God to be in the right place at the right time? 
  2. What does it mean to live out the gospel where you are?
  3. Have you ever shared with someone about your new identity in Christ?