Friends and Partners

This picture tells a thousand stories. I met Insaf (bottom left) in 1998 when researching refugee ministry opportunities in Istanbul (her husband, Shawki, is far right). They were refugees from Iraq. They turned my understanding of refugee ministry on its head. They had planted a refugee church in Istanbul by accident. Before finally getting resettled to Canada 🇨🇦 in 2001, they were also running a school for refugee children (that included a daily meal) out of the church. Insaf continues to serve refugees in the Middle East today with IAFR Canada.

Innocent is the African in the photo. He has a Burundian passport, even though he spent all but 3 months of his first 27 years outside of Burundi as a refugee. We met in Malawi back in 2007 (I think) and a have been partnering in ministry together in Dzaleka refugee camp ever since.

Then there’s Jake (middle). I met him in Malawi too. He was serving with Innocents organisation (There Is Hope). Jake joined IAFR when he and his wife returned to the states a few years ago. He presently serves as our Regional Leader for East Africa.

And Rachel is in the photo too. We first met when she was serving refugees in Athens. She and her husband, Tim, went on to pioneer ministry in Rome and later in London. They now serve with IAFR. She’s our Director of Training and Tim (not pictured) is our Assistant Director of Operations.

We all met at the North American Round Table of the Refugee Highway Partnership in Toronto last week.

I count myself blessed to be counted among their friends.

Back to Kakuma…

I begin another trip to Kakuma refugee camp in remote northwestern Kenya today. I am looking forward to seeing how our friends there are doing. I’m taking three people with me, including Jenna (a pastor from my church), Wendy (on staff with a local refugee resettlement agency) and Paul (IAFR’s Europe Regional Leader).

We’ve got a full schedule that includes…

  • A day seminar on Christian Stewardship with leaders from churches in Kakuma camp and surrounding host community. This is at their request.;
  • Sunday worship with churches in the camp and surrounding host community;
  • A 2 day women’s ministry conference with women from the camp and host community;
  • A day gathering of a diverse slice of people living in the camp to learn from them about daily life in Kakuma;
  • A day gathering with church leaders in nearby Kalobeyei refugee settlement to deepen our relationships as so much of our previous time has focused on projects;
  • A visit with our friends and partners in the nearby camp for internally displaced people (i.e. Kenyans) with whom we have been building shelter and working on providing a local supply of clean water;
  • Visits with friends in the refugee camps, the IDP camp, and the host community;
  • Documenting progress on the many projects we are pursuing in the Kakuma context (i.e. IDP Water Project, IDP Shelter Project, KISOM School Building Project, Refugee Youth Camp Project, Refugee/IDP High School Scholarship Project, Refugee Church Building Project)

It’s important to note that we never do more than 50% of the teaching/speaking at conferences/seminars with our refugee brothers and sisters as we have at least as much to learn from them as they do from us.

We need and welcome your prayers for safe travels, good health, and fruitful ministry while in Kenya!

I plan to post a few updates from Kakuma to the IAFR Kenya blog – so be sure to check it out. You can also see posts from previous visits.

Partner – Dr. George Kalantzis

It was a joy and blessing to have Dr. George Kalantzis from Wheaton College (IL) lead our morning sessions exploring the nature and meaning of the gospel during our annual IAFR missionary conference this year.

George has played a key role in our partnership with Wheaton College and its Humanitarian Disaster Institute in the past 4+ years in Kakuma refugee camp (Kenya). He plans to travel to Kakuma with me again in March 2020 to continue investing in the refugee church leaders with whom we partner. Dr. Margaret Diddams, Provost of Wheaton College, also plans to join us on that visit.

We thank God for partners like George who not only teach theology but also make themselves fully available to reflect deeply on the Gospel.

IAFR Conference

Most of the IAFR team converged on Minnesota for a few days to retreat together this past week. It was a rich time of reconnecting, worship and learning. I am so grateful to be part of this amazing fellowship of the Highway.

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.

IAFR Athens

Ilir and Kate Cami with their children

Ilir and Kate Cami joined the IAFR team this month. They are no strangers as we served together many years ago. They’ve been serving refugees in Athens for more than 2 decades. Their joining IAFR will enable them to continue serving with a Greek nonprofit called One Heart – the Founder/Director of which I have also known for decades.

Ilir came to Greece as a refugee from Albania back in the 90s. He became a Christian there and later received a calling from God to serve refugees. Kate is originally from the US and met Ilir while serving refugees in Athens. Ilir is among the most passionate people I know when it comes to introducing people to Jesus. Kate brings organisation and stability to both their ministry and family.

I have also known Sahar, the founder/director of One Heart, for many years. Originally from Iran, she also came to Athens as a refugee and became a follower of Jesus there. She began serving refugees as a missionary shortly afterwards. Today, she not only provides leadership to One Heart. She and her husband (from the Netherlands) lead a Persian church in Athens that brings together about 100 people from Iran and Afghanistan for worship and mutual encouragement. Of course, Ilir and Kate are also supporting this fellowship.

IAFR is partnering with One Heart by sharing both missionaries and resources because we are pursuing the same vision with similar values and a common faith in Jesus.

Click here to learn more about this new IAFR ministry location!

WhatsApp & FB Messenger

A variety of calls and messages from missionaries and refugees in Kenya, Greece, Costa Rica and Uganda lit up my WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger yesterday.

A family from Costa Rica updated me concerning their ministry among refugees from the Middle East passing through their country. They had been quite sick earlier in the week and were struggling to find the strength to serve refugees. They wanted me to know that God was answering prayers and that they were feeling better.

A Somali refugee mother in Kakuma refugee camp wanted to know if the rumors in the camp about the US opening up again to refugees were true. I had to tell her the bad news that nothing has changed on this end of the refugee highway. The door to the US is all but closed.

Meanwhile a missionary (and former refugee from Iran) connected with me via Facebook Messenger to ask for prayer concerning a series of difficult decisions before her related to the growing ministry in Athens. It seems no matter how she proceeds, there will be pain.

While I was chatting with her, another refugee/missionary started messaging me from Uganda. He’s originally from DR Congo and is a Christian leader in the refugee settlement he calls home. Someone has falsely accused him of being a Rwandan spy pretending to be a church leader. The accusation has been published to an online news source. Such an accusation puts his life in danger.

Meanwhile another refugee from Kakuma started messaging me. I know him from the annual refugee youth camp there, as he is one of the leaders. He’s been suffering from debilitating headaches for 3 years. He missed this year’s youth camp due to headaches. The camp hospital seems unable to help. He doesn’t know what to do.

The day ended at 11:30 PM with a series of WhatsApp texts from a dynamic young Christian from Iran who just wanted to say hi.

Just another Friday…

Old Friends

Photo: A Persian feast in Athens

I arrived in Athens this afternoon. It is good to reconnect with old friends and colleagues here around a table filled with Persian specialties.

I am encouraged to hear how God is at work in the lives of refugees in this difficult place and look forward to seeing how we might encourage those serving them.

Bringing two worlds together

He was originally from Somalia, but when things fell apart there, he was forced to flee to Kenya. He spent something like 25 years in Kakuma refugee camp. No wonder he calls it home. And that’s where we got to know each other. I always looked forward to visiting him when I was in Kakuma.

A few years ago he was resettled to the US and now lives about 25 minutes from my home in Minneapolis. I think we both thought that we would see a lot more of each other here. But it turns out we are both pretty busy with life. It was nice yesterday when we finally managed to meet for a long overdue cup of tea followed by lunch at his favorite local Somali restaruant.

Our conversation went all over the place as we caught up together. But there was a recurring theme: “We’ve got to do something to bring our people together here.

He’s right. I know people from “my world” that are afraid of Somali people. He knows people in “his world” that feel rejected and even hated by people here. We agreed that if this continues, it will not lead to anything good.

It is challenging to try and bring our different worlds together. But when we think less in terms of the masses and more in terms of our friends it becomes doable. Still, even bringing our friends together is likely to prove difficult – mostly because people are so busy and spread apart. We will still give it a try.

I’m going to start by connecting with the growing group of friends here who have traveled with me to Kakuma.

If we can spread a table and bring our worlds together a few lives at a time, the false assumptions, fears and distance between us might just begin to fall away. And that just might help usher in a day when our worlds become one.

Friendships or Relationships?

I came across this chart while preparing for a training session I’ll be giving this weekend to a group of Christians serving resettled refugees in San Diego. It shows how the use of the word “friendship” has been in decline over the past 200+ years, starting at 1800 and ending at 2008. It resonates as true and struck a deep chord of sorrow in my heart.

As I reflect on this I realize how often I speak in terms of the need to build relationships rather than friendships. Perhaps because the word “relationships” feels less demanding?

While friendships grow out of relationships, all too often I settle for less than the pursuit of friendship with others. And yet it is friendship for which I long. I bet that is true for most of us – including those who have been forced to flee their homes and homelands.

Among the things I want to emphasize in the training session is the need for us to not only help refugees in “practical” ways and through various programs – but by building authentic friendships with them.

We cared so deeply that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our own lives as well. That is how beloved you have become to us.”
The Apostle Paul | 1 Thessalonians 2:8