Why would native Europeans help any of the refugees desperately trying to enter their countries? One Austrian said, “Luck had it that I was born in Austria. Maybe you were born in the UK. And they were born in Syria. Sixty years ago, that would've meant, that it would have probably been me in Austria needing to escape. Nowadays it's people from war-torn Syria.” Few would understand a refugee’s plight better than Austrians.
Hans Fast, a GEM missionary in Austria and later Luxembourg, understands the situation better than most. Hans was born in 1951 in the village of Grossbörnecke, a Soviet-occupied zone of Germany, to two refugees from Ukraine and Poland. The young couple met after they traded their home countries for Grossbörnecke four years earlier, when the American army captured and secured it. Since that time, Americans had been replaced by Soviet troops.
Shortly after his birth, Hans became the subject of threats against his family. A woman from his father’s hometown in Ukraine began blackmailing them, demanding money to keep her knowledge of his father’s identity from the Soviet commander. “This would have resulted in my father’s execution,” said Hans. Knowing they were no longer safe, his aunt arranged for someone to guide the young family, now including a daughter and a son, across the Soviet line into the American zone where they had more relatives. Hans recalled, “The night of December 31st my father carried my sister, and my mother pushed me in my pram with all that we could bring with us into freedom. Just as we reached the border I awoke and began to cry, but the Soviet guards did not detect us. The people who helped us pointed us to a faint light in the distance. 'That is a Gasthaus,' they said. My father paid them 100 marks and off we went towards that light.” The family was interned in a refugee camp in Uelzen and within one week, they had been granted refugee status.
Living in a refugee camp with children was hard. Hans became ill and a Red Cross nurse suggested a better environment for him. The couple applied for permission to relocate, and were transferred to another refugee camp in southern Germany. There, as in all of Germany at that time, work was hard to find. The country was in the process of rebuilding after World War II, and everything - including jobs and housing - was scarce. “Refugees were viewed as scavengers,” Hans said, and as depriving the locals of already scarce commodities. After some time, Hans’ father found a job shoveling snow, and a local miller hired him to feed pigs and cut firewood in the forest.
Hans' parents dreamed of moving to Canada where they had family, but the Canadian government would only take Hans’ father. They said once he had established himself in Canada, he could bring his family to join him. Refusing to separate, they prolonged their stay in the refugee camp.
Hans father met a Ukrainian refugee who said his uncle in Canada planned to help him immigrate there. Hans asked if his new friend would be willing to write a letter to his uncle asking if he knew his own uncle, who also lived in Canada and who he hoped would help him and his family immigrate. The letter arrived the day the friend’s uncle left to go to a pastor’s conference. That evening around the dinner table, one of the pastors introduced himself as David Fast. “This was my father’s uncle,” Hans told us, his father’s uncle who decided to sponsor their immigration.
In February of 1952, they arrived in Canada. The train that took them to Winnipeg was filled with refugees. After some time, the Fasts moved to Calgary to live with Hans' aunt. For months they slept in one room. Hans’ father found work and helped his sister-in-law finish her house. Eventually, Hans’ father built his own house, permanently establishing his family in Canada.
When he was old enough, Hans’ began attending school. “Aunt Rosel took me to school and registered me for grade one. She registered me as John Fast because my real name, Hans Fast, labeled me as both a German and a displaced person.” In elementary school the refugee children felt the stigma of being immigrants, however in junior and senior high school that disappeared altogether. It wasn't until college, that Hans began to be thankful for his German heritage, language and culture. It was then that he began using his given name. His family home had always remained very German. His mother hardly even learned English and all of the children grew up bilingual. “Not until 1979, when my parents visited us in Austria, did my mother realize that she was proud to be a Canadian,” Hans said.
Hans met Adeline, his wife, and Greater Europe Mission during his time at Bible College. In their junior year, Hans and Adeline heard a number of missionaries talk about the need for the Gospel in Austria, including three GEM recruiters. That caught their attention. By the time they graduated a year later, they sensed God leading them to minister in Austria, and in 1977 they moved their family there as missionaries with GEM. Eighteen years later they moved to Luxembourg, where they have worked for 21 years.
In the last twelve years Hans and Adeline have helped start All Nations Church of Luxembourg. The Luxembourg population is almost 50% foreigners who have come for work. Some are refugees seeking a better life. Hans reminded us that multiple times God spoke to the Israelites and said, “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”
He and Adeline are going back to Canada this year. Hans said, “All my life I have been a foreigner. In a few months, after 39 years of working in Europe, Adeline and I will be transitioning back to Canada and are discovering that it is foreign to us. We pray that God will once again bring kind and welcoming people into our lives.”
As Hans and Adeline transition back to Canada, we as their GEM family want to thank them for their years of service in Europe and for sharing their lives with us and with the people of Austria and Luxembourg.
We also want to ask you to consider Hans’ story and what life looks like for many refugees in Europe today. Pray for more people like Hans and Adeline who are willing to share their lives, offer a helping hand, and share the Good News with refugees.
(Is this you? Find ways to serve refugees with gemRefuge.)