Photo: Refugee camp on the Aegean Sea (Behind the fencing and cement pillars topped with barbed wire)
We stood talking through the bars of the gate behind which security guards stood in their bullet proof vests. They refused to let us in, even though we were with friends who presently call the refugee camp behind the bars and barbed wire walls their home. It was an oppressive sight.
Our friends are young believers in Jesus. The denial to allow us to enter the camp to visit them in their container-converted-into-a-shelter was another dehumanizing moment. The father said how hard it is to feel human in such conditions. The weight of his words was almost visible.
The mother told us how much their Persian fellowship in Athens means to her and her family. They gather with other refugees in a home outside of the camp – in a home where they are welcomed, valued and treated as human. It is a fellowship of travelers from distant nations who have found Jesus to be a faithful friend in every circumstance.
We had joined their gathering the night before. The living room was full of refugees – brothers and sisters from Iran and Afghanistan. They shared how much Jesus means to them. Some spoke of the difficulties of their journey – and then said how it has all been worth it because they met Jesus on the way.
Photo: Refugee camp entrance – down the path and through the barred entrance
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.
Something wonderful happened in February while I was in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. It happened in Atlanta, GA…
A young lady named Appoline who came to the US as a refugee embraced Jesus as the Christ – her Savior and Lord.
This didn’t happen by chance. Many years ago, God moves a Filipina named Sharon to Atlanta to serve as a missionary among refugees. And Sharon connected with Appoline. And she proceeded to connect Appoline with a church there. And God set all this in motion so that Appoline would discover that she is loved by the Creator and Redeemer of all things.
Sharon serves in Atlanta with IAFR. She has a highly relational ministry that includes helping refugee youth discover the love of God.
What a privilege it is to support missionaries like Sharon with a calling to help refugees survive and recover from forced displacement! How encouraging to see God at work through her faithful ministry.
Lives are being transformed along the Refugee Highway.
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.
A leader of a well established refugee ministry in Greece reached out to IAFR this past week to begin exploring the possibility of a close ministry partnership that would include IAFR sending missionaries and resources – basically relating to their organisation as we do our IAFR teams.
This seems to be a promising possibility, so I’m looking at my calendar to find time to pay them a visit this spring. It is important to see their work, understand their context and talk this over in more detail.
Would you please pray with us as we consider this together?
I’ll be speaking at Hope Presbyterian Church in Richfield, MN, tomorrow morning. I’m taking Pastor Jean Pierre Gatera with me as the church asked me to share about the refugee church and Pastor Gatera spent 20 years of his life in Kakuma refugee camp – and many of those years as a refugee pastor. I can think of no better way to introduce them to the refugee church than to give them the privilege of listening to Pastor Gatera.
I’m flying up to Winnipeg (Canada) this morning. I’ll spend a couple of days visiting an IAFR teammate who relocated there from the US earlier this year. Once she gets her work permit, she plans to join IAFR Canada and pioneer IAFR’s work in Winnipeg.
My aim is simple. I hope to offer encouragement, gain a better understanding of the refugee context, and meet with our existing friends and network there.
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.