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.
The text came during supper tonight. A man in the Twin Cities needs shelter…
He fled Somali and while uprooted has come to be a follower of Jesus. And while the US government acknowledges that he would likely be killed for his faith if deported back to Somalia, it still refused to give him asylum – permanent refuge and a pathway to citizenship. So the US will not deport him – but they will also not grant him place – or even a work permit at this time.
How is someone supposed to live in the US without a work permit?
It’s a cruel joke as it feeds the misinformed stereotype that refugees and migrants are lazy. This man desperately wants to work and earn his keep. But the US won’t let him.
He’s spent the past 18 months in a Salvation Army shelter. Their policy is to limit people to 12 months in a shelter – but they understand this brother has nowhere to go.
A friend of mine who once worked in Somalia asked if IAFR might have a space for this brother in one of our Jonathan Houses – homes in which we offer shelter to asylum seekers during the 6-18 months that they are not able to legally work in the US while their case is examined. They don’t even get access to social services during this time.
It’s like we are trying to set vulnerable people up to fail.
I messaged our local IAFR Ministry Leader about this need. She quickly replied that there is a space open in the Jonathan House for men. Within a couple of hours I was able to connect my friend with our team in Minnesota.
This is when the church shines.
Strangers connect through the amazing network of the Church in order to help a vulnerable stranger in our community.
Even if we are able to meet this Somali brother’s need for shelter, he still faces life challenges the size of Goliath. He needs our prayers. He needs a supportive community of faith. He needs healing after living in a state of toxic stress for so many years. He needs place.
Father, please fill us with the knowledge of your will, giving us spiritual wisdom and understanding so that the way we live always honors and pleases Jesus and our good works bear good fruit and our relationship with you grows deeper and deeper.
May we be strengthened by your glorious power so that we persevere with endurance, patience and joy with thanksgiving for you have enabled us to share in the inheritance of the saints living in light.
Based on Colossians 1:9-12
While reading from Colossians 1 this morning, I was reminded how we can help shape each other’s spiritual formation through intercession. So I remixed Paul’s prayer a bit and put it on a digital sticky note. I have already found it helpful in moving me to pray more consistently for my IAFR teammates.
People sometimes ask how they can best pray for missionaries. I find this prayer a good place to start. I welcome your prayers for me along these lines!
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.
I spent the past few days in Toronto meeting with the executive leadership of IAFR Canada. We meet face to face twice annually in order to invest in our relationship, assess progress and challenges, listen to God and confirm our commitment to partnering internationally as we pursue our common mission.
We ended our time together last night gathered in the backyard of one of the board members for a tasty supper of Lebanese kebabs (photo).
It was encouraging to have met some of their new teammates as well as sit in on their board meeting. It is a joy and privilege to be serving together along the Refugee Highway.
I am often asked this question. Here is my best shot at a brief answer…
Our Mission Field
Our mission field is the Refugee Highway – the well-worn routes people travel in search of safety. This is where we find our fellow human beings, made in the image of God, spilling out of the deepest and darkest wounds in the world today.
We are helping people survive and recover from forced displacement together with the church.
What We Do
We demonstrate the love of God for those who have been forcibly displaced by hatred and violence. We pray for the privilege of participating with God in his answers to their prayers.
We introduce forcibly displaced people to Jesus – He is the ultimate revelation of God and his love for us.
We partner with the refugee church, breaking her isolation and investing in her capacity in ways that strengthen hope and fuel resilience in refugee contexts.
We train and consult with churches, missions, agencies and individuals serving forcibly displaced people.
We advocate on behalf of forcibly displaced people, seeking to create space in the hearts and minds of people (especially Christians) for refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people
The IAFR Continuum of Response (below) shows the ministry strategy we contextualize to suite the diverse locations we serve. There is a lot packed into it. Let me know if you would like to know more.
Why We Refuse to Lose Heart
I have often been asked why I haven’t burned out after nearly 40 years of working among people in crisis. Of course, the biggest reason is God’s grace. The needs we face are relentless and the burden is often heavy. But there are three realities that help keep hope alive and my heart and mind resilient.
God has been at work in and through the lives of forcibly displaced people ever since Adam and Eve were uprooted from the Garden. God met them on the other side. God is meeting refugees in remarkable ways today too.
Refugees are more than people in need. They are an important part of the solution to the challenges they endure. They are a huge source of inspiration in my life.
The church can be found all along the Refugee Highway. When at her best, she plays a unique and essential role in helping people survive and recover from forced displacement – a role that humanitarian agencies are not able to fill. The kinds of ministries listed on the green line called “Recovery Work” in the Continuum of Response (above) are well-suited to the ministry of a healthy church.
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!
It was a tough beginning to this past week. An IAFR missionary family that has been preparing to join our work in Lille, France, was deep into the final countdown before taking the physical leap across the Atlantic.
Earlier this year, they sold and moved out of their home and into a temporary space. The husband put in his final day at work last week. It was a good job with Mayo Clinic. Taking those kinds of steps with a family is no small deal. So you can imagine what it felt like when after he clocked out for the last time, they received notification from the French embassy: Their visa application was refused.
In response, we set our IAFR service team into full swing.
I had lunch with the husband on Monday, primarily to offer support and to try and understand what might be behind the refusal. Tim Barnes, IAFR Executive VP, took the lead from there to coordinate communication with the family, the service team and the our Ministry Leader in France. We sought out and received helpful counsel from Greater Europe Mission as they have several expat missionaries serving in France.
The result was that the family was ready to schedule a re-application appointment for this coming Tuesday in Chicago.
I’m thankful for the IAFR service team as well as the missionary family as we were able to navigate this efficiently and effectively together. And I know we are all praying that this re-application will find favor with the authorities so that the family can hop their plane to France as planned in early April.
Our prayers are not in vain. For we know that God sees, God hears and God cares.
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’m going to spend most of my day tomorrow with Kelsey, a twenty-something who joined IAFR last year to serve in Ventimiglia, Italy – an unknown smallish Italian city on the border with France.
Kelsey was with the IAFR research team that stumbled upon Ventimiglia and discovered many asylum-seekers and refugees are living there in squalid conditions – men, women and children from distant countries, most of which are experiencing protracted war.
Kelsey and I are going to explore what to anticipate when pioneering a new IAFR ministry location.
In preparation, I came upon the following definitions of pioneering…
One of the first to settle in a territory
A plant or animal capable of establishing itself in a bare, barren, or open area and initiating an ecological cycle
A person or group that originates or helps open up a new line of thought or activity or a new method or technical development
All three of these ideas apply to what Kelsey plans to do. The second bullet point conjures up a beautiful and hopeful image that I hope will prove true of her life in coming years.
Some might look down on her because of her age and think it unreasonable for someone like her to step into the complexities and unknowns of Ventimiglia. But I am partial to twenty-somethings. I was 22 years old when I set out to pioneer ministry in a remote Austrian village that wasn’t even found on maps…