Kakuma bound

Photo: the Kakuma airstrip

I packed my bags today as it is time to head back to Kakuma refugee camp (Kenya). You can follow my trip by visiting the Kenya blog. You can also see posts and photos and videos from previous visits.

This month’s trip has a lot going on – everything from theological training to following up on a school building project to checking on progress of an well/water project.

While I don’t relish the thought of going from 0 F to 100+ F in the coming days, I do look forward to reconnecting with friends and church leaders in Kakuma.

A global faith community

A young man in a Middle East war zone asked a friend of his living in Central America if he knew of any trustworthy friends in a country in North Africa. He plans to flee there soon.

The friend in Central America messaged me last night to ask if I know of any such brothers and sisters. I reached out to some friends in the North African country and am waiting to hear back.

The church is a remarkable global community.

I pray there is a brother that will be able to meet this young man when he arrives in search of refuge.

Missions Roundtable (TX)

Photo: Rob Hoskins talking about missions and social change at Celebration Church in Georgetown, TX.

It was a privilege to be part of a Missions Roundtable of mission leaders from mega churches in the US. They meet regularly to explore what missions looks like in the 21st Century.

I learned a lot as I listened to them share their vision and challenges related to promoting and engaging their members in missions effectively.

I’m thankful to Rob Hoskins of One Hope for inviting me to share and be sure refugee ministry was on their radar. Their response and affirmation was encouraging. We will see where God takes this from here.

I leave the green grass of Georgetown, Texas, for the snow of Minnesota on a red eye flight tomorrow. My 3:00 AM alarm is set so I’d best catch some sleep before it goes off…

Kakuma planning

With Pastor Gatera this week

I’ll be visiting Kakuma refugee camp again later this month. As always, I consulted with my friend and IAFR colleague, Pastor Gatera, to offer perspective on my trip priorities.

Pastor Gatera spent 20 years of his life as a refugee there and now lives here in the Twin Cities. He is a man of great wisdom and faith. What a joy to partner together!

This visit to Kakuma will include several days of theological training with a group of 25 Christian leaders (men and women). Professor George Kalantzis from Wheaton College will be doing the training as he has for the past several years.

I’ll also be following up on active IAFR projects in Kakuma (refugee scholarship program, IDP water project, KISOM building project, Shelter for refugees, Refugee youth camp, 2020 refugee pastors’ conference and more).

Of course the best part of any visit is reconnecting with our friends there.

A Syrian cries for help

IAFR receives a steady flow of emails and social media messages from refugees that find themselves in difficult situations. Just this week alone I’ve been in dialog with a Christian in Pakistan with grave concerns about the dangers Pakistani refugees face in Thailand; a Nepalese woman in Poland who is asking for advice before seeking asylum somewhere in Europe; and a Syrian in Turkey who is losing hope and desperate to find a way out.

While it isn’t easy to hear of their suffering and loss of hope, I’m glad we can be here for them. Although we are often not able to offer hands on assistance, we are able to affirm their dignity and pray for them. I am often encouraged when they express how much that simple response means to them.

Here are excerpts from my emails with the Syrian refugee in Turkey today:

Part of my initial response to the Syrian’s initial inquiry:
I know that your situation feels like you are stripped of your dignity. Please take heart knowing that your difficult situation does not define you. You are a valuable and loved creation of God. Although your circumstances are difficult, God has not abandoned you. He is with you. We pray that you will know God’s good presence and that you know that he sees you and cares for you.”

The Syrian:
OMG! God bless u sir Tom, i couldn,t believe that u r answering me!! Very kind and gentle of u sir.Thanks for ur supporting words… U r soo gentle and big hearted man full of charity seeds … Swear God u make me optimistic ‘ u really insert hope into my life and there is still charity in this life , because u r there! Yes sir …..it is only reality. Take care of ur self ANGLE Tom, and keep on touch pls.”


Consulting with refugees

Some of the Refugee Church leaders with whom we are partnering in Kakuma. Photo 10/2018.

The association of refugee churches with whom we partner in Kakuma refugee camp (Kenya) has grown from 7 to over 160 churches since 2000. But they have not updated their organisational systems and structures to cope with the growth.

I spent most of today consulting with Pastor Gatera, former Chairman of the association of churches in Kakuma, to discuss some basic organisational structures/frameworks for them to consider.

It was time well spent as they now own land, a building and have a growing arsenal of ministry resources (including a solar projector).

While such discussion isn’t exactly exciting, it turns out that the long-term effectiveness of their work depends upon clear and strong organisational systems – no easy feat in a refugee camp environment.

My role is not to tell them what to do or how to do it. They are fully able to make such decisions. But they are cut off from the rest of the world and they value outside perspective and input as they think such things through.

I’ll be visiting them again next month and suspect that we will spend some concentrated time discussing these things in depth together.

From a place we’ve never been

Photo: Pastor Gatera

Pastor Gatera’s parents were forced to flee Burundi back in 1972 when war broke out in the region. They were refugees in Rwanda when he was born. Although everyone identifies him as a Burundian even today, he’s never lived there.

I guess it is possible to be from a place we’ve never been.

The 1994 genocide forced him to take flight again. He was separated from his parents in the midst of the violence and chaos. He found refuge in eastern Congo. But war and violence followed him there too…

He was in the middle of his sophomore year of high school when he fled to Tanzania. He tried to resume his studies in the refugee camp there. But the political winds in Tanzania changed and refugees were no longer tolerated. They were to return back to their countries of origin. As strange as it may sound, for him it would mean returning to a place he’d never been.

He knew that was not safe, so he took to the bush and walked over 300 miles (off road so that he would not be caught and arrested) to neighboring Kenya. He was in need of safe shelter and didn’t know where to turn. So he went to a police station and asked to spend the night in the jail. You can imagine their surprise. Thankfully, they came up with a better option.

His first request for refuge was denied in Kenya. The authorities thought he should “return” to Burundi – a place they said he was from, although he had never been there.

He decided to make his way to Kakuma refugee camp in the remote northwest corner of Kenya. Because he was not recognized as a refugee, he was not legally supposed to be in the camp. But he saw no other option.

A refugee church took him in. They cared for him for the next three years. They helped him find shelter and shared their food rations with him. It was during this time in his life that he embraced Jesus as his Savior and Lord.

He says that Jesus completely changed his outlook on his life – past, present and future.

He ultimately received formal refugee status in Kenya and was able to live legally in the camp. It was there that he met his wife (from Rwanda) and raised their three children. He also served as a refugee pastor and gained widespread respect throughout the refugee, NGO and local community.

He was instrumental in the flourishing of an association of churches from within the refugee and surrounding host community. It continues to serve as a powerful force for good today. It is with this Association (United Refugee and Host Churches) that IAFR partners in Kakuma today. They are over 160 churches strong.

After 20 years in the camp, he and his family were resettled to the USA in the fall of 2016. Today he is a missionary with IAFR.

If you ask him,”Where are you from?“, he is likely to say he is from Burundi. A place to which he’s never been.

Is it really possible? -to be from a place we’ve never been?

If I read my Bible correctly, those of us who follow Jesus are citizens of the kingdom of God. It is a citizenship that transcends all other identities we might carry. It is a kingdom more real than any other. It is a kingdom coming. I guess I too am from a place I have not yet been.

Would you like to become a financial partner with Pastor Gatera and his remarkable ministry with IAFR? If so, it’s easy! Just click here and make an online donation today.

Life-changing projects

I picked up website design skills over the years and serve as IAFR’s webmaster. I had the joy of adding 3 IAFR projects to the website yesterday – all part of our work in Dzaleka refugee camp, Malawi.

All three projects make a significant contribution to a person’s ability to recover from forced displacement.

The Vocational Training Project helps people develop practical skills and abilities that are likely to lead toward meaningful employment.

The Refugee Scholarship Project is helping disadvantaged people qualify for meaningful employment and increases their potential to become social influencers for good.

The Small Business Venture Project is helping people start businesses that will help them survive and make ends meet. These businesses can change the future trajectory of a family.

We’ve already seen how these projects make a tremendous life-giving difference in people’s lives.

We are now opening up the possibility for more people to share in the joy of making such a meaningful difference in the lives of the people in Dzaleka.

Learn more at www.IAFR.org/projects