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.”
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.
I’m going to spend most of my day tomorrow with Kelsey, a twenty-something who joined IAFR last year to serve in Ventimiglia, Italy – an unknown smallish Italian city on the border with France.
Kelsey was with the IAFR research team that stumbled upon Ventimiglia and discovered many asylum-seekers and refugees are living there in squalid conditions – men, women and children from distant countries, most of which are experiencing protracted war.
Kelsey and I are going to explore what to anticipate when pioneering a new IAFR ministry location.
In preparation, I came upon the following definitions of pioneering…
One of the first to settle in a territory
A plant or animal capable of establishing itself in a bare, barren, or open area and initiating an ecological cycle
A person or group that originates or helps open up a new line of thought or activity or a new method or technical development
All three of these ideas apply to what Kelsey plans to do. The second bullet point conjures up a beautiful and hopeful image that I hope will prove true of her life in coming years.
Some might look down on her because of her age and think it unreasonable for someone like her to step into the complexities and unknowns of Ventimiglia. But I am partial to twenty-somethings. I was 22 years old when I set out to pioneer ministry in a remote Austrian village that wasn’t even found on maps…
Among the highlights of 2018 was the registration of IAFR Canada, an autonomous mission agency that shares the vision, mission and values of IAFR and with whom we partner closely.
In order to strengthen our partnership, my Executive VP (Tim Barnes) and I meet monthly with our peers at IAFR Canada via video conference and twice a year face-to-face. Our first such meeting will be this week, at Mt. Olivet Conference and Retreat Center, about 30 minutes south of Minneapolis.
We’ve got a robust agenda as we anticipate a year that is likely to include new IAFR ministry sites in Iraq, Lebanon, Uganda, Italy (Ventimiglia) and Canada (Winnipeg). As IAFR CA just got it’s charity number in August, we will be discussing how we can continue to set up expectations, systems and agreements that help us partner well together as we seek to enable the church to help people survive and recover from forced displacement in the world.
Anyone who’s engaged in close international partnerships knows that they are more complicated than they first appear. I’m thankful for the highly experienced people that God has brought to the IAFR table. But we still need your prayers for wisdom and discernment as we meet.
After assessing a pile of Christmas cards, I made this. I find myself imagining how different the world would be if these words marked our lives. From what the prophet wrote, it is in everybody’s best interest to look out for the needs of those who are most vulnerable.
A message from Europe asking if we can help a refugee ministry in Cyprus…
A call with a person with significant profile and influence in the world of refugees exploring the possibilities of gaining some frontline ministry experience…
An email from Switzerland connecting me with a person at the UN Refugee Agency to whom I sent a report about how churches in Lille, France, are working together to provide shelter and education to minors seeking asylum in the country.
Some initial planning for my next visit to Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp in early 2019…
These are some of the things that I’ve been working on in the past couple of days.
There is so much that needs to be done – and that can be done – to help people survive and recover from forced displacement. The main challenge we face is finding financial partners who will support those ready and willing to serve with us along the Refugee Highway.
Pray with me that God would raise up the missionaries we need AND the financial partners needed to pursue our pressing mission.
Re-entry is always tough. It takes time to decompress after a visit to Kakuma refugee camp and reorient myself to life and work in Minnesota.
Today I bought my plane tickets and registered for an upcoming conference in Costa Rica at the end of the month. A large gathering of Latin American Missions is meeting in San Jose to reflect on missions among the diaspora. They’ve invited me to speak concerning the churches role in the global refugee crisis. I am flying in a day early to meet with a handful of Christians there that are serving refugees in Costa Rica. What a privilege to meet with and encourage them. I’m sure I will also learn from them!
I also met online with a friend, mentor and WEA leader, Christine MacMillian. She’s been my WEA leader as I serve as Ambassador for Refugees. We’re trying to figure out ways to get the right people to various UN meetings related to refugees. One specific meeting is called the Dialogue on Faith and Protection. It will meet on Dec 18-19 in Geneva. WEA would like me to be there – but the timing is really tough (the week before Christmas). I welcome your prayers as I try to discern whether this is something I need to do in spite of the timing. The cost of the trip would be high – probably $3700-4000 including airfare, accommodation and meals. I don’t know how I could swing that if I was able to go. Would you pray with me about this and let me know if God impresses anything on you?
In between meetings, I began writing up my recent Kakuma trip. So much happened while there. I’ve learned it is critical to keep notes and write a detailed report in order to keep track of all the moving parts in the ministry.
I’m home now. Donna is an elder at our church and is on a team drafting a statement to bring to the church concerning our posture on some of the most difficult social issues of our time.
Our plate is full. We’re both a bit weary. But we are also grateful.
It’s been bothering me for a while – IAFR’s social media presence has been pretty weak. While not an end in itself, social media is an powerful free resource to raise awareness of refugee realities and create hope that God is at work in the midst of human vulnerability and suffering.
I started posting more regular updates to the IAFR Facebook account a couple of weeks ago (www.facebook.com/refugeeministry). This week I resurrected the IAFR Instagram account (@IAFRefugees). It’s encouraging to see our list of followers quickly growing.
If you don’t already, I encourage you to follow IAFR on Facebook and Instagram – and encourage your friends to do the same.
I’m praying that IAFR will find a person with the passion and ability to run our social media, but until we find that person, I will do what I can to keep it going.