From numbers to faces

Some people have had a tough week…

I met with a man who is seeking asylum here in the US. We spent about 3 1/2 hours together. After sharing much of his own story, he told me about his wife and son, living on the edge of a war zone half a world away in Africa. He worries about their safety and lives with the daily stress of not knowing if the US will let him stay and rebuild his life. He can’t do much to help his family until he has a status here that will enable him to apply for family reunification. In the meantime, he can hardly sleep.

This morning I got an email from a friend who has been a refugee for many years. As a refugee pastor, he started a ministry caring for the most vulnerable people in his area. But last night, a friend told him that he needed to flee his country of refuge due to false rumors that have inflamed other refugees to the point of seeking to harm him. So he fled to a neighboring country. In his email, he was asking if I knew anyone at the UN in the country that might be able to help him get UN refugee status. I don’t. But I was able to connect him with a friend who spent 20 years as a refugee in that country. I’m hoping he might be able to help this man find a safe space in which he can then figure out what his options are.

Forced displacement like this happens to 37,000 new people every day. When numbers become faces the weight of it all becomes real.

Hospitals and humanitarian space

Hospitals are places to which people go in response to a personal physical crisis. They exist to save lives and provide care until people are able to return home. They are populated with people in need of care and health care professionals – hardly a normal living environment.

No one mistakes a hospital for a long-term housing option. No one wants to be there any longer than necessary. No one calls a hospital home.

Although long-term patients might set a few relics from home in their room, they do not try to make their rooms mimic home. They long for the day they can leave and get on with life.

Such is life in humanitarian space.

Humanitarian space

I often describe the mission field in which we work as “humanitarian space”. Its no surprise that people struggle to understand what I mean, so I thought I’d use this blog to try and clarify.

This will likely be the first pondering of many on this subject. Hopefully it will become clear that missions in humanitarian space is not missions as usual. Missions is about contextualization and failure to understand the unique mission field of humanitarian space has ramifications.

IAFR was founded with this as a core conviction – the church belongs in humanitarian space. She has a vital, unique and essential role to play in the lives of forcibly displaced people. But the church at large has been slow to recognize that its mission includes humanitarian space. I’ll come back to this later. For now, let me try and describe what I mean by humanitarian space…

Humanitarian space is created to save lives. It is a space created in response to humanitarian crisis. It offers a safe place (refuge) to forcibly displaced people.

It is a created space. It is not a natural place. It only exists when people offer it to those in need. It has to be carved out of existing places. That is no easy task. Whether inhabited or not, we love our places and do not easily open them up to others – especially to people who are not like us. It is not easy to create space for others within the places we call our own.

It is supposed to be a temporary space, opening up as a refuge and then closing once the affected people can move on – ideally returning to their homes. In cases that do not offer the option of returning home, it offers refuge until some other kind of solution is made available – a solution that offers people place again.

But what happens when humanitarian space is needed for decades? What happens to people who are restricted to such space for generations? What happens to people who cannot return home and who are given no other option but to call humanitarian space their home? What happens to the hundreds of thousands of children born in humanitarian space and who have never known what it means to be from a place? What happens to children who see their father die in a refugee camp after spending 41 years in humanitarian space as did my friend Pastor Nomani?

I strongly caution my brothers and sisters to not set foot into humanitarian space before having contemplated such questions.

A call from Jakarta

A group of churches in Jakarta (Indonesia) asked IAFR to meet with them on a Zoom conference call this past week. They have all found themselves engaging in refugee ministry and feel like they don’t know what they’re doing. The purpose of the call was to bring them together for the first time around this issue – and to get some perspective from IAFR. Rachel Uthmann (IAFR Director of Training) and I had the privilege of meeting with them for a couple of hours.

I was encouraged to hear how these churches are doing what they can to help asylum-seekers survive while in Jakarta. As Indonesia is not a signer of the UN Convention on Refugees, the situation for asylum seekers and refugees is extremely tenuous. They are not legally allowed to work and they are technically not supposed to be in country. Yet there are an estimated 14,000 women, children and men seeking refuge there. Most are from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but there are also refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea ,Somalia and other countries.

Churches are hosting refugee fellowships, teaching English, helping with food and housing, and sharing the gospel with them. They are struggling with identifying a clear goal for their ministries as there doesn’t seem to be an option for refugees to stay or for them to move on. There isn’t a pathway for them to legalize their status and rebuild their lives. They are stuck in survival mode.

What does it look like for local churches to minister to such people in the long term?

The convener of the call asked IAFR if we would consider coming to Jakarta to meet with churches there and offer some basic training. Indeed we are.

Legal counsel

One of today’s challenges was to get legal counsel concerning how we process applications for housing in the shelter ministry we operate for asylum seekers in the Twin Cities. Things are often not as simple as they first appear.

I’m thankful for the excellent leadership of Sarah Miller, our local Ministry Leader. I’m also thankful for the wisdom and perspective of Jenn Urban, our legal consultant at Legal for Good on such issues.