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…
One of today’s challenges was to get legal counsel concerning how we process applications for housing in the shelter ministry we operate for asylum seekers in the Twin Cities. Things are often not as simple as they first appear.
I’m thankful for the excellent leadership of Sarah Miller, our local Ministry Leader. I’m also thankful for the wisdom and perspective of Jenn Urban, our legal consultant at Legal for Good on such issues.
I had struck up a conversation with a 50 year old man who was sitting outside of a motel that houses refugees. I asked if he spoke English to which he replied by asking if I was from England. That was his reply when I told him I was from the US.
Photo: the Refugee motel outside of which we met
He speaks English well. He has a BA in economics from a university in Iraq. But he is now “a nobody” seeking refuge in France. I could tell hope is running thin.
It’s never easy hearing someone claim that my homeland destroyed theirs. But I’ve learned to listen and try to understand their point of view. And so I listened this morning.
I heard a middle age man lamenting the loss of his mother, father, brothers and wife to the violence and chaos of post Sadaam Iraq. At some point, he felt compelled to flee even his homeland.
In his words:
“I have lost everything.”
And that is the point. I was talking to a man who has been stripped of everything in life. He is now trying to rebuild his life in Europe – but Europe wants him to go back to where he came from. He is presently sheltered in an unfinished motel, sharing a tiny room with 2-3 other people who have also fled their countries of origin.
The past is filled with loss. The future is uncertain. The present is painful.
This wasn’t a time for bandaids or closure. It was a time to listen closely. It was an opportunity to offer presence without judgment.
I came away with a heavy heart. We are so far from Eden.
Photo: Paul Sydnor (IAFR) talking with a refugee in the abandoned warehouse
This is one of many rooms in an abandoned warehouse that has become a makeshift refuge for 200-300 refugees and asylum seekers here in northern France. Conditions are terrible. Overcrowding and lack of sanitation make this a place in which sickness is inevitable. It is temporary home to mostly men, but some women as well. Nights are said to be somewhat frightening. But these people have nowhere else to go.
During our brief 1-2 hour visit, we met people from Gambia, Cameroon, Mali, Albania and Afghanistan. I have no idea what other nationalities are represented in the space.
A group of Afghan men invited us to sit with them beside their tents in the building. One was disappeared when we accepted their invitation. He returned moments later with a bowl filled with fresh fruit to share with us.
Photo: with two of the Afghan refugees by their tents
They spoke openly of their difficult journeys from Central Asia to Europe. One of the men shared with me has he has been denied asylum repeatedly by different countries – and how he is into his 4th appeal here in France. He’s been searching for refuge for 24 years now – including 10 years in Iran.
When I told them that I would pray for them – that God would lead them to a place that they could call home. Their eyes brightened. “That is What we need! Thank you!”
Please pray with us that God would call people to join with our team in Lille, France, full-time to help these friends survive and recover from forced displacement together with the church.
I’m packed and ready to head to Lille, France. We have a local ministry there that is opening a Centre that will serve as a safe space in which locals and refugees can connect in mutually beneficial ways.
A local French church is renovating a service garage and turning it into a ministry center. IAFR will begin leasing the space to use for refugee ministry in January.
One of the big challenges in the French context is finding spaces in which refugees and locals can meet. This Centre will serve that end.
We’re thankful that local churches see the value of creating this safe space in their community.
She was born into a Christian family in Pakistan. She was kidnapped by a relative and sold as a 16 year old bride to an older Muslim man. After too many years she finally found a way to escape. She is now a refugee in Thailand.
“Can you help her?”
That was why the person called my office this morning. She knows the young woman and wants to find a way to help her to safety and a place in which she can begin to rebuild her broken life.
Although the United Nations recognizes her as a refugee, Thailand does not. Her life there is tenuous and as a single mother, she is among the most vulnerable refugees.
I reached out to two Christian leaders that I know who have trusted connections in Thailand. Perhaps they can help this sister survive while there. I also reached out to a Christian leader in Brazil, as his country is among those to which refugees can be resettled. Many churches in Brazil are exemplary in their active concern for refugees.
And I connected with the IAFR Canadian office to see if they knew of a church or network that might be willing to sponsor this sister to Canada. There are few countries that offer a private refugee sponsorship option as does Canada.
We prayed together before hanging up. We know that God alone can help this sister and single mother find refuge. So be it.
The caller met me way back in the early 2000’s. We had completely lost touch. An old copy of The Map of the Refugee Highway brought my name to mind as she was searching for a Christian agency that might be able to help with this situation. I glad she found us. I hope and pray that God gives us the privilege of participating with him in answering our sister’s cry for help.
I spent a good part of today assisting a friend that is in the process of fleeing her country. For obvious reasons, I can’t share any details. While I count it a privilege to offer prayer and encouragement as she steps out on her dangerous journey, it is weighing heavily on me that anyone has to make such a decision and take such risks.
I am encouraged to see how fellow Christians from diverse churches are standing in solidarity with her. The church is right where she should be.
May God lead you on a straight way to a city where you can settle. (from Psalm 107)
Photo: asylum seekers under a bridge in Ventimiglia, Italy
IAFR’s Kelsey Briggs recently spoke with a refugee who had spent time in Ventimiglia, Italy, about 10 years ago. This is what he shared:
In 2009 I spent two weeks in Ventimiglia. I was very sad and lonely. While I was there I ran out of the last bit of money I had for my journey. I had already tried to make it to France five times. I sat on the beach and prayed to God, asking what I should do. A few other people joined with me. While we were sitting together, a person came by and offered each of us a sandwich.
He went on to say that he will never forget Ventigmiglia because he experienced God’s faithfulness there – through the stranger who gave him a sandwich.
He is now a follower of Jesus and leader in his church.
Kelsey says that his story serves as a reminder that it is often in the midst of simple moments that God is telling his grander story.
Kelsey is raising support to pioneer IAFR ministry in Ventimiglia, Italy.
Twenty-four people came to the quarterly gathering of the Minneapolis/St. Paul (MSP) Asylum Network yesterday. They represent churches and local agencies that somehow include asylum seekers within their work.
The Asylum Network was started by IAFR’s Sarah Miller, our MSP Ministry Leader. When she first came to the Twin Cities, her research identified asylum seekers as an underserved group in the community. As she met with different people involved in some sort of assistance to asylum seekers, she found that they weren’t all connected with each other. Everyone was serving in isolation. So she launched the Asylum Network. It’s been going strong for a couple of years now.
This week, the Center for Victims of Torture (an international humanitarian agency based in the Cities) gave a presentation on trauma awareness. Sarah writes…
“During the discussion time at the end, a Rwanda asylum seeker, Emmanual, shared how his experience resonated with what was shared. He is an incredibly articulate young man. Before the day ended yesterday, I received this email from him:
Subject: Thank you for your commitment to our cause.
Hi Sarah, I am so glad to have met you. Thank you so much for your choice to dedicate yourself to the cause of refugees. Thank you deeply for creating a space for asylum seekers. It is terrible to fall in a category that has zero eligibility in the nation’s social protection. Thank you. This is just a note of thanks, I would like to meet you any time soon you can be available. I hope you live in Minnesota.