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.

The undertow

I had a lunch with Pastor Gatera – a former refugee now part of the IAFR team.

It is the 25th anniversary of the infamous Rwandan genocide. Both them are survivors of that darkness. I wanted to give him opportunity to talk about it if he wanted. I asked how he and his wife were doing. His eyes briefly welled up with tears. He managed to hold them back.

He passionately spoke of the need for people to learn from the past and then move on toward a better future. He feels many survivors are stuck in the past. The wounds fester. They still need healing. The ethnic tensions that fueled it may be well hidden but they are alive and well. Sadly, it seems that the powers that be are working to stop healing and learning from taking place.

I couldn’t help but wonder whether the fear and hatred being stirred up toward different people groups in our own culture doesn’t carry with it the potential for similar violence. We too need to learn, heal and choose to move toward a better future or we might find ourselves suddenly caught in a similar undertow.

Struggle and pain

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.

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…

Meeting Jesus on the way

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.

Amen.

Photo: Refugee camp entrance – down the path and through the barred entrance

Appoline in Atlanta

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.

Kakuma bound

Photo: the Kakuma airstrip

I packed my bags today as it is time to head back to Kakuma refugee camp (Kenya). You can follow my trip by visiting the Kenya blog. You can also see posts and photos and videos from previous visits.

This month’s trip has a lot going on – everything from theological training to following up on a school building project to checking on progress of an well/water project.

While I don’t relish the thought of going from 0 F to 100+ F in the coming days, I do look forward to reconnecting with friends and church leaders in Kakuma.

A global faith community

A young man in a Middle East war zone asked a friend of his living in Central America if he knew of any trustworthy friends in a country in North Africa. He plans to flee there soon.

The friend in Central America messaged me last night to ask if I know of any such brothers and sisters. I reached out to some friends in the North African country and am waiting to hear back.

The church is a remarkable global community.

I pray there is a brother that will be able to meet this young man when he arrives in search of refuge.

A Syrian cries for help

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.”


From a place we’ve never been

Photo: Pastor Gatera

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.