Divine appointment

I received an email today from a Burundian refugee woman in Kakuma refugee camp. God brought me across her path while there in April. I’ll call her Josie…

I was taking a US pastor and his wife for a quick tour of the refugee camp. Courtesy of our partner NGO, National Council of Churches Kenya (NCCK), Elizabeth was our driver for the day. She is a strong Turkana woman who often drives the UN Toyota Land Cruiser like a NASCAR driver with an ever present smile on her face (while wearing a full-length dress).

We were pretty deep in the camp when Elizabeth asked if I wanted to stop and talk to people. I smiled because she’s driven me around many times over the years and knows that I am always asking to stop to meet with people. She pulled over and we got out. It didn’t take long before we were surrounded by a group of refugee women, children and men. They were eager to talk.

Josie worked her way through the crowd and asked if she could talk.

We walked over to her mud brick shelter. She introduced me to her 3 year old son. Her English was broken, but she was desperate to tell me her story. It was apparent that she was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

She had been a refugee in Rwanda prior to fleeing to Kenya earlier this year. After being assaulted and gang raped in Rwanda, she fled to Kenya with her son. Now she is pregnant. She is alone. She is vulnerable. She doesn’t know what to do. She begged me to find someone who speaks Swahili to come visit her, listen to her story and help her. Above all, she wanted to be moved to a safer place in the camp.

I hate feeling powerless. But I often do. I’ve learned over the years that I need to push through my own sense of helplessness and bring such friends into the presence of Jesus through prayer. I asked her if I could pray with her. She was so thankful. Praying together didn’t solve the problem, but we named Jesus together and remembered God is with her and that he is good.

It was getting late. Elizabeth called us back to the vehicle. We continued our tour of the camp. When we returned to the NGO compound, I told leaders serving with NCCK and Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) and Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) about Josie and her need for psychological support. They said they would reach out to her.

Josie has since kept in touch with me through email. She writes that she received only one visit from a NGO worker and that was nearly 2 months ago. He listened to her story, but there has been no follow up. I emailed a friend serving with an NGO and asked if he could have someone follow up with her. But the NGO workers already carry an impossible burden as they work on shoe-string budget to keep 186,000 refugees alive each day. I know they will do what they can in the midst of the many other responsibilities they carry.

I heard from Josie again yesterday morning. I can’t make out exactly what she is trying to communicate, but it sounds like someone in the camp has threatened her if she refuses to abandon her mud brick shelter and turn it over to him. I get the impression that camp security is not protecting her.

Once again, all I can do is listen and pray.

But thank God, Pastor Jean Pierre Gatera joined IAFR last year! A Burundian by nationality, he lived in Kakuma for 20 years. He not only pastored a refugee church but was also well-known and esteemed as a leader of pastors within the camp and surrounding host community. He knows just about everyone there. He was also among the refugee pastors that IAFR is training in trauma care together with Wheaton College (IL). So I asked Pastor Gatera if he would email Josie and invite her to communicate with us in her mother tongue. He wasted no time. Within minutes, I was copied on his email reaching out to Josie.

I don’t know where things will go from here. But I sense God is at work, caring for Josie in the midst of her fears, suffering and struggle. I believe God hears our cries and sees our struggles – and that he cares. And I suspect he is giving me the privilege of being one of the people in Josie’s life through whom he is answering her prayers.

While it seemed quite random at the time, I think I know what moved Elizabeth to ask me if I wanted to stop and talk to people in the camp that day in April. Divine appointment.

A day in the life

Morning

I met with a friend with a well-founded fear that their TPS (temporary protection status) will not be renewed this year. The possibility is forcing my friend to consider seeking protection from another country. What an unnecessary uprooting and trauma for my friend to have to experience. We prayed together.

Afternoon

I finally got the FY 2017 Annual Report done and uploaded to the IAFR.org website!

Evening

After speaking during an IAFR live webinar about current refugee realities, I headed into the city…

I was invited by friends in the local Somali community to join them for Iftar (breaking of the Ramadan fast). Warm hospitality, great conversations and amazing food.

It is clear the Somali community feels misunderstood by the surrounding society as the evening program included a speaker clarifying Koran teachings on women, jihad, murder and suicide. They desperately want others to understand that extemists should not define our perception of all Moslems.

I was pleased many people from local churches were there. For how can we love our neighbors if we don’t know them?

The MN Council of Churches is partnering with the Somali community to bring people together during these meals during Ramadan.

Did I mention that the food was amazing?

Communication

I never forgot what he said when my generous older brother gave me a Compaq laptop computer many years ago (with a black and white screen with Windows 3.1). “The essence of your work is communication. So you need quality communication tools.”

Although that was back in the early ’90s, it came to mind today as I secured a Comcast Business contract for our US office today.

We’ve been using a free guest internet connection but have found it often slows down or drops out entirely just when we need it most. As we host many video conference meetings with our leadership, missionaries and partners as well as training webinars, it is time to invest in something with the capacity we need.

So after speaking on this morning’s webinar, I spent a good part of the day talking with Comcast and securing a modem/router that will meet our needs.

It will be installed (and hopefully working) on Friday afternoon.

An important investment in the essence of our ministry: communications.

Ditto

I took the above photo a few years ago and will use it during tomorrow’s LIVE webinar [click link to register] when speaking on the reality that 84% of the world’s refugees are in developing nations.

I spent much of the day preparing for tomorrow and Thursday’s webinar (research, photos, maps, content development).

We’ve got around 20 people registered for tomorrow morning and around 15 for Thursday evening. I’m encouraged. It’s not too late to join us!

Webinar

Our mission is bigger than we are. So we put a lot of time and thought into developing resources and training opportunities intended to help local churches, missions, refugee agencies and individuals thoughtfully and effectively engage refugees in life-giving ways.

I spent a good part of this morning working with Rachel Uthmann, IAFR US Director of Church Training, as she prepares an IAFR webinar to air live on Wednesday morning and again on Thursday evening. I’ll be the featured panelist.

Click below to register (it’s free) and join us!

I hope to see you there!

Privacy and transparency

The European Union put new privacy laws into effect in May that released a flood of emails from nonprofits (including IAFR) to those on their email subscription lists. We all had to update our privacy policies concerning websites, blogs and email lists accordingly. I suspect you received at least an email or two notifying you of updated privacy policies and requesting you to confirm or update your email preferences. You may note that even this blog has a new Privacy Policy.

I’m thankful for the work of Tim Barnes, IAFR Executive Vice President, as he worked to update our privacy policy together with our legal consultant. I then spent a good part of the past week adding the updated policy to our website and IAFR affiliated blogs. I also prepared and sent out emails to friends on IAFR email lists requesting that they confirm their desire to be subscribed. I hope you took a second to click on any such IAFR email(s) you may have received 🙂

This kind of work isn’t shiny, but it is an important and even essential part of protecting friends who visit our site and want to keep informed of how we are helping people survive and recover from forced displacement.

Lacking place

At last the Lord has created enough space for us to prosper in this land.”

-Isaac (Genesis 26:22)

The ancient stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob attest to the reality that it has never been easy to be a migrant or foreigner in a strange land.

This verse struck me this week as I’m reading through Genesis again.

Although God had confirmed his blessing and covenant with Isaac earlier in the story (26:2-6) it didn’t mean life would be easy in the land of the Philistines. Isaac felt extremely vulnerable and fearful as is shown by his need to call his wife his sister (26:7) and again later when he was desperately trying to secure water for his family (26:18-21).

When Isaac finally digs an uncontested well his joy and relief cannot be contained. “At last the Lord has created enough space for us to prosper in the land!” (26:22).

Still his struggle as a foreigner and migrant is not over. When the Philistine king comes out to meet him, Isaac’s deep pain is quick to surface. “Why have you come here? …You obviously hate me, since you kicked me off your land.” (26:27).

The lack of having a place to which one can tie identity and which one can call home leaves a person feeling extremely vulnerable and often unwanted. Foreigners and migrants live with this on a daily basis.

The host community within which they find themselves can choose to offer them a place of belonging within their society or it can choose to send messages reminding the migrants/foreigners that they do not belong and that they would prefer them to leave.

While this is true of most migrant experiences (including my own forefathers who immigrated to the US and even my own 23 years of living in Europe as a foreigner), it is especially true for refugees and asylum-seekers.

The deepest longing of their heart is to find “enough space for them to prosper in the land“.

Bad news

The news came by a text in WhatsApp at around 6 AM…

Pastor, we need your prayer. We are in a very hard moment. The pictures below is a family of my wife sister. Yesterday during the night, at around 1AM some people burnt their house…the whole family… [including] 4 children died. I don’t know how to hold my wife emotion, thus we need your prayer.”

Photo: The sister-in-law

I received this message (along with several gruesome pictures) from a refugee pastor in Malawi last Friday. The brutal killing of his sister-in-law and her family went down in DR Congo – one of the world’s leading refugee producing nations.

My heart and mind were numbed by the news. I couldn’t process it. How would you reply to such news? I was finally able to send him a heartfelt prayer via WhatsApp.

I pray that our partnership and friendship with him and his church will be a source of strength as he and his family walk through this dark valley.

I don’t share these kinds of stories very often – not because they are few and far between – but because they are traumatizing and difficult to carry. Yet in a world that is increasingly hostile to refugees, I think it is important to understand the kind of hell from which they are escaping.

My hope is that this story will imprint itself on our hearts so that we are less likely to give in to the ceaseless rhetoric of politicians that paint refugees as opportunists and potential terrorists.

They are people in desperate need of protection and refuge.

The refugee pastor has been forcibly displaced for over 20 years with no permanent refuge in sight. The news of his sister-in-law demonstrates it is not an option for him to return to his homeland. What is he to do?

How is it that the world refuses to offer him protection and place?

Diagnosis matters

In the world of health care, a well-informed and accurate diagnosis can save a life. It is also true that a wrong diagnosis can be quite harmful.

The same is true in the world of politics and refugees.

It matters if we diagnose refugees to be potentially dangerous people. Such a diagnosis leads us to conclude that we must protect ourselves from them.

However, if we diagnose refugees to be people fleeing from dangerous people, we will conclude that we should offer them protection.

By definition, a refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her homeland due to a well-founded fear of persecution and/or to escape war. So our default diagnosis should be to offer them protection. In fact, it is our obligation according to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Of course, it is a bit more complicated when it comes to diagnosing asylum-seekers. They are people who flee to another country (like our own) and claim to be refugees (i.e. forcibly displaced).

It is standard practice for countries (like those in the EU, Australia, the US and Canada) to assess whether such asylum-seekers are truly forcibly displaced (i.e. they would be in real danger of imprisonment or death if they were in their homeland). It is incredibly important that we get that diagnosis correct – for it is a matter of life and death.

But as politicians repeat the refrain that refugees and asylum-seekers are potentially dangerous people, many countries are putting their time and precious resources into preventing them from ever crossing our borders. We are treating them the same way we treat the Ebola virus. As a recent example,  consider yesterday’s BBC report on Hungary’s draft legislation to treat as criminals those who assist asylum-seekers.

But the diagnosis is wrong. And people are dying because of it. We are protecting ourselves from people who need protection. That is not only cruel and heartless. It is insane.