Bucharest, Romania – In the basement of a new building in Giulesti, a neighbourhood on the periphery of Bucharest, pastor Peter Rong is preaching.
It is Sunday and his sermon is about the Tower of Babel as a symbol of diversity.
The church he is preaching in, Nadejdea, is Baptist and a small Tower of Babel itself.
People from all over the world gather here to pray or seek help. Most are asylum seekers.
Over the years, Nadejdea has become known as the “refugees’ church”.
“This is a transit church, people come and go,” says Rong.
“There were people from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Cameroon, Nigeria, Congo, Ghana, Rwanda, Myanmar, South America. Some of them went to Italy, to England. Some I am still in touch with, they write to me, others I don’t hear from any more.”
Originally from Sudan, 46-year-old Rong has been living in Romania for more than 26 years.
I said, 'Father, I want to go to Romania. If not in Romania, India. I don't want to go to other parts of the world.' So in 1992 I came to study economics
He first heard about the Eastern European country as a child, when the pastor at his church prayed for the congregation’s brothers in communist countries.
Young Rong’s father, a former police chief, had wanted his son to study in the UK or US.
“I said, ‘Father, I want to go to Romania. If not in Romania, India. I don’t want to go to other parts of the world.’ So in 1992 I came to study economics [in Romania],” says Rong.
First, he travelled to Cluj-Napoca, in the country’s west, to study the Romanian language for one year. Then he began an economics degree, taught in Romanian, at the Bucharest University of Economic Studies (ASE).
In his second year, he became embroiled in sometimes violent disputes between Muslim and Christian Sudanese students in Romania, which led the Sudanese embassy attempt to send the group back to Sudan.
But the students did not want to leave, and were arrested by Romanian authorities. They spent one year and seven months in jail.
“In prison, there are people who come – visitors, relatives. Our relatives were the missionaries and the Christians with whom we had contact.”
Rong considers his jail time saved him. The alternative would have been to be sent back to Sudan, a country scarred by war.
He was inspired by the priests from the Anglican church who came to meet him.
“I heard the voice of God who said, ‘You are my servant.’ And I said, ‘If I am your servant, free us from jail, I didn’t come to stay in jail, I came to study.'”
Four years later, he completed his studies at the Theological Baptist Institute in Bucharest and became a priest.
While most churches are Orthodox in Romania, there are few institutions where students can learn to become a Baptist priest.
At the “refugees’ church”, 51-year-old Mehran Davari and his son Daniel, 16, are listening to Rong’s service.
Originally from Iran, they were Muslim but used to attend a Christian church in their homeland. They converted to Christianity in Romania, where they arrived in 2015.
They have applied for asylum, but were rejected in December 2017. They now live under Romania’s “tolerated” status, which allows people to remain and work.
“I didn’t know about Romania, I just knew that Bucharest is the capital city and we have a street in Tehran named Bucharest,” says Daniel.
“[Rong] helped because he is our pastor, he gave us the power to fight … when somebody says no. We have to fight. For a period of time, we didn’t have money. He gave us money, he took us out to McDonalds and to an Iranian restaurant, because he likes Iranian food.”
According to the General Inspectorate for Immigration, so far in 2018, more than 360 people have applied for asylum – with at least 225 from Iraq, 65 from Syria and 14 from Iran.
In 2017, 4,820 applied – 2,742 were from Iraq, 945 from Syria and 257 from Afghanistan. Last year, 1,309 received a form of protection and 849 received refugee status.
Rong says his intention is not to convert people to Christianity, but to show support.
“God gave us life and we have to protect it,” he says.
Samuel Wisdom, a 31-year-old Liberian national living under protection in Romania, says he has seen Rong welcome Muslims into the church.
“Even Muslims came here and he said, ‘Don’t worry, the house of God is the house of God.’ He helped a lot,” says Wisdom, who first came in Romania in 2004 by boat on the Black Sea.
Because it was difficult to find work, he travelled to Malta and Switzerland, but later returned.
He now works as a factory supervisor.
“In order to survive here, I was helped by the church. Sometimes, we were out of cash; sometimes, we were out of food and [Peter Rong] helped us,” Wisdom says.
Each church member donates 10 percent of their income, which goes towards helping those in need.
“In the winter, we help those who need boots, we buy winter clothes. I know how winter was for me, it was snow and for two weeks, I didn’t go to school. We buy rice, what they need to eat,” says Rong.
It is difficult to live in Eastern Europe, we don't have the same culture and we don't have the same seasons, here it is too cold. You don't find so many black people here, so that isolates us a bit. Each time when you walk on the street, they are curious.
Gloria Matufueni, 23, from Congo is another regular churchgoer.
She came to Romania on a student visa to attend an economics school in Bucharest.
But because her family was unable to support her financially, she interrupted her studies and worked for six months in a call centre, later applying for refugee status.
“Peter Rong helped me a lot personally. When I came here to the church, I knew no one. He even invited us to his house, so we didn’t feel lonely or isolated,” Matufueni says.
“For us, the black people, it is our culture to help each other. So what he had, he shared with us. He gave us something to eat or money, not because I needed it, just because it is our culture to share.
“It is difficult to live in Eastern Europe, we don’t have the same culture and we don’t have the same seasons, here it is too cold.
“You don’t find so many black people here, so that isolates us a bit. Each time, when you walk on the street, they are curious.
“At the beginning, I thought this was racist, but then I understood that this is only curiosity.”
Rong says that on the whole, Romania is not a racist country, but cites what he calls isolated cases such as people on the tram calling him “negro” or others labelling him as “exotic”.
“In the first week here, there were many children calling us ‘chocolate’,” he recalls. “And I was in a shop and I bought a chocolate – Africana was popular at that time – and I gave it to them. I said, ‘Do I taste like this? I’m not chocolate, I’m Peter.’ And from that moment on, they didn’t call me ‘chocolate’ any more.”
Eighteen years ago, Rong married a Romanian woman he met at a Christian camp. They have three children, including a baby born in February.
He visited Sudan in 2008, after 16 years away.
His parents live in Juba, and he considers going back permanently one day. But his wife and children’s safety, he says, comes first.
For the moment, Romania is his home. Just like his church, it is a place of refuge.