Tuesday, December 15, 2009


It’s been a month of movement. Ireland, Albania, and now Turkey. Saturday-week was a transit day. Five hours by car from Erseka to Tirana. Short flight to Istanbul. Short flight to Antalya. Three hours by car from Antalya to Kaş.

A lot of face time with drivers.

The Bible School arranged for this young man Tony to drive me. He came from Tirana on Friday, arriving early enough to set up shop for the school, staff and church folks. Haircuts and new “do’s” all round. At 7:20 am Saturday we hit the road. I didn’t know Tony. Still shaky from a day of Morocco-crud, I was ready to hunker in and sleep.

Tony was ready to talk.

In broken English, he shared a LOT of life. I wish I could write with his words, but 10 days after—well, here’s some of his story.

Albania is arguably the poorest country in Europe. There’s not much work. The national economy, and almost every family, survives on money sent home by those who leave the country for work. Many, many young men go to Greece to labor in the jobs nobody else wants. Think, on the social scale, of Mexican illegals in the US, or Turkish “guestworkers” in Germany, or Pakistani laborers in UAE, or Eastern European factory workers in UK.

Tony went Greece the first time on forged documents. Eventually he was arrested and deported, and lost everything he’d earned. Penalty: a three-year ban on any legal application to enter Greece.

Tony stayed in Albania until unemployment again grew intolerable. This time he went into Greece over the mountain behind Erseka. Gramozi’s top marks the Greek border, and it’s just three miles out of town, an easy place to cross, but a long, dangerous journey down the other side on foot. Again, after some time, arrest and deportation. Again desperation mounted until he decided give it one more try.

That third trip was successful. Tony stayed in Greece a long time, long enough to save 7,000 euro, enough to set himself up in business at home. Lonely and eager for home, he started on foot back over the border the way he’d come. But it was winter. Cold and weak from days and nights of exposure, Tony realized he would die in those mountains without help. He also knew that under Greek law a third arrest would mandate jail. Tony had reached the end of himself.

He prayed. He admitted the mess of his life, and his need for a savior. And not just a savior from the cold of the day. In his dark need, Tony threw himself on Jesus.

The rest is a blur. After he prayed, he turned to human help even though his exposed location and Albanian accent would give him away. He offered his money. A man took him in, gave him food, and got him into transport to the border post. Somehow Tony got through the checkpoints. Somehow he, and his money, made it home.

That was last year. Tony returned to Erseka a new man, grateful and transformed.

Last summer he married, and the new couple have set up a haircutting shop in Tirana. Things are going well, though they must work hard. Can’t let down for a minute. Tony sold his motorbike, and they bought the old Mercedes sedan I rode in. The school gives him some extra work driving visiting teachers like me, and the chance to do a few haircuts there.

Tony is involved in the church in Tirana, but there is pain around that. He tells me that his wife is Muslim—a heritage he shares. She came to church, but found it terrifying. All of which led me to ask how his marriage came about.

“My father cuts the grapes,” Tony tells me. His dad is a vinedresser, and one day he was hired by a man in Korçe. “This man liked my father very much, and they began to talk. The man told my father that he had a son and could not find a wife for him, and asked for my father’s help. My father told him about me and said he would make an agreement with that man—that if he would find a wife for me, my father would find a wife for his son.” And so it was. That man had a daughter. Tony accepted her, and they were betrothed. All that was years ago. Long engagements are the norm in Albania, where it is also a serious breach of honor to break off a betrothal. Ruins the woman’s reputation, and potentially her chance to marry anyone else. And so, even as a believer, Tony felt bound to keep his promise and marry her.

Now he lives with it, loves her, and prays. During our five hours on the road, she phoned Tony six or eight times. “Where are you? When will you be home? Please, drive safely and take good care of yourself.” A new dear one for which to pray.

As Tony told me all this I marveled at God’s amazing answer to the prayer of my friend Monika. Tony is her brother. I remember how two years ago her talk was consumed with concern for him, with anxious longing for him to know Jesus and to find his way. I remember praying with her for him. As Tony dropped me at the airport I felt I’d been treated with a window into heaven.

Airport waits and two flights later I was the last to leave the international terminal at Antalya. “Lord,” I prayed as I waited for my bag, “let it be Ramazan driving tonight. I like him. He’s a good driver, and he’s easy to be with. You know I’m tired and sick. Don’t think I can face a stranger.”

Alas, no Ramazan. In fact, no driver at all. I looked. I waited. I wandered. I hunted through my phone, files and computer for a phone number, but came up blank. It got later—9:30 pm in front of an empty terminal alone, and I don’t speak Turkish. “Take a taxi to the bus station? But will there be a bus to Kaş at this time of night?”

Finally I approached the taxi rank. “How much will this cost me? Will anyone even be willing to start for Kaş at 10pm?” We haggled in broken phrases, agreed on a price and a currency, and then he asked me to wait five minutes. Another taxi pulled up and this very young man hopped out to load my bag. “Is he even old enough to drive?” I wondered.

We set out. Very fast, then hard on the brakes, then crazy fast again. He was taking and receiving phone calls. Then, in halting words, he asked if his mother could come with us. “Sure!” It’s not the first time the car we’ve hired carries family and friends of the driver in the back. He pulled off into a neighborhood and stopped before an apartment block. A woman in peasant garb and headscarf came out, followed by a girl of about 12. Mom and sister climbed into the back seat. “Esalaam alaykum!” Mom clapped me on the shoulder with affection. I was surprised by the religious greeting, rather than the common “merhaba!” “Alaykum esalaam,” I replied. She pressed almonds into my hand, still warm from the roaster, and chattered away to her son as we careened down the road.

They didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Turkish. We chatted some with hands waving—enough for me to learn that she had always lived in Antalya, these were her only children, and that she had cancer. I understood enough of their Turkish to realize that she had never before been to Kaş and this was a huge treat for her from her son, whose love for her was apparent. It was pitch dark, a stormy, wet night. As we drove, he told her what towns and villages were coming up, and pointed out the window at passing scenes, describing in detail the beauty of the (invisible) view. She oohed and ahhed in amazement as the young man talked.

It was the fastest trip I ever made to Kaş. A combination of breakneck speed and delightful company. As I grabbed my bags and paid the fare in the middle of a dead winter night, I wondered whether they would drive around to see the town, wait until daylight, or head straight back. I even thought about inviting them to stay with me though my sick bowels and the unknown order and food-less state of the apartment checked me.

Don’t you love it when God takes people we see simply as the means from point A to point B and wakes us up to His image and glory in them?


Dean and Mary Anne said...

Jeri -- This is a great sharing of the life in two countries. Your gift of writing certainly brings to life Tony's quest for a future and how he has faced his many challenges as well as what many of us might take a simply a long ride from Antalya to Kas. It's like the reader was beside you in the taxi after traveling with Tony across the mountains to Greece & back. Thank you for taking the time you gave to this writing.

Jeri said...

Glad it felt that way for you! Those guys were amazing--such a gift!