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.
Good news flashed on WhatsApp this morning. It was a series of photos (including this one) showing refugee churches with metal sheet roofing in Kalobeyei refugee settlement.
The settlement hosts about 40,000 refugees. Many of them are Christians. Although the settlement opened in June 2016, the churches are just now receiving plots within the camp on which they can build. Most of our brothers and sisters have been literally meeting under trees for the past 2+ years. And the trees in the semi desert often offer next to no protection or relief from the relentless sun.
We thought the $5000 we sent to our refugee partners there would provide enough metal sheeting to roof up to 5 churches. What a joy to see how they stretched the funds to help 7 churches!
Over 30 churches are still in need of help. Let’s pray with them for God’s provision!
Click here if you would like to contribute to this project
A message from a young Christian man in Kakuma refugee camp today (including a few slight edits for readability)…
“i’ve realised that my headache is the result of many sicknesses including the climate, the refugee process, thinking about my future and my lost/missing relatives and basic needs etc. it’s too much. sometimes i don’t want to talk about my life bcause the more i talk the more it hurts me especially at night i can’t sleep again. nightmares”
Never underestimate the suffering and pain of being a refugee.
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.
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.
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.
I am humbled and filled with thanksgiving for God’s faithful provision for IAFR ministry in 2018. It is the first year IAFR has received over $1 million in donations. I thank God for every person, church, foundation and business that has partnered with us in this way.
While donations are not an end in themselves, they are an important means toward our being able to accomplish our mission in the world – to help people survive and recover from forced displacement.
Our global reach and impact are directly related to our financial base. Therefore I celebrate this encouraging milestone. 🎉