The Cinq Etoiles

Welcome to the Cinq Etoiles (imagine an accent over the “e”) – or “Five Stars”. That is what those who inhabit this abandoned warehouse call it. They come from war torn and oppressive countries in Asia, Africa and Europe. They are looking for refuge from human-caused humanitarian crisis. They are among the people IAFR is called to serve.

Perhaps the most pressing need in the Five Star is for sanitation. A health crisis is imminent should this basic need continue to be unmet. But winter is soon coming and the lack of heat will soon add to the challenges of surviving in this space.

In most places, the locals would be screaming to get these people out of their neighborhood. But here, they advocate on their behalf. The French neighborhood in which the Five Star is situated recently protested when the government shut off the water to the building. It is remarkable to see them support the 200+ refugees living there. I saw people drop off food. I also saw a man teaching French to refugees. But there is still so much that needs to be done.

As IAFR’s Europe Regional Leader and local Ministry Leader in the city of Lille, Paul Sydnor is working to help these people survive and recover from forced displacement. He is in desperate need of teammates to come and join him in the work. Michael and Heather Jurrens have already joined IAFR to join the ministry in Lille. They’re busy raising support now.

So I have two requests. 1) Please pray with me that God would quickly grow the financial support team for Michael and Heather so they can get over to France soon. 2) Please pray that God would raise up reinforcements to join the work in Lille – preferably some young, faith-filled and fearless women and men of God.

Amen.

So far from Eden

Your country destroyed my country.”

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.

Seeking refuge in France

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!”

Amen.

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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.

Creating safe space

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.

God’s heart on the highway

I serve with IAFR because it is focused on serving the world’s most vulnerable people – often in overlooked and remote places. IAFR does this in ways that I feel look like Jesus – in ways that are tender, thoughtful and gentle and also wild, progressive, creative and very challenging. I’m drawn to IAFR because of the way I see God’s heart playing out in what we do.

-Kelsey Briggs, preparing to serve in Ventimiglia, Italy

This is a paraphrase from an online video interview I made with Kelsey today. I plan to show to our board next month. Kelsey is in her 20s and eager to finally get to Italy to pioneer ministry in a context to which the media pays little attention, but in which there are thousands of vulnerable women, children and men desperately trying to find a way to survive.

I’m praying that God would send 1000+ young women and men of faith – people like Kelsey – to join IAFR and step out onto the refugee highway in places like Ventimiglia.

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Every one of our leaders is asking for more teammates. Would you join me in praying that God would call people to join with us?

I know God can do it. I was 22 when God called me into this ministry back in 1980. So as I pray, my faith is strong and my hopes are high.

A sandwich

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.

Connecting people along the Highway

IAFR dreams of the day when churches and ministries scattered all over the world are able to work together in life-giving ways that help refugees survive and recover from forced displacement. An email this morning from a colleague serving with IAFR Canada shows what can happen when we are connected.

There is a 28 year old man from D.R. Congo seeking refuge in Malta (a small EU island nation in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea). He somehow came across the general email address of IAFR Canada and wrote:

“I need help to have asylum seekers paper or refugee camps. I’m suffering in Malta. Please I need directions.”

IAFR Canada is now reaching out to our IAFR missionaries serving in Malta (Doug and Jacqui Marshall) to see if they can follow up personally with this man.

We’re off to a good start – but we imagine this kind of scenario playing out on a daily basis someday as we develop ministries and networks that connect refugees to people that they can trust.

Would you please breathe a prayer that God will further make this dream a reality?

Life changed

This is one of the earliest photos of me from 1980. It was taken shortly after I had touched down in Europe for a 6 month short-term mission stint right after graduating from college.

I thought I was going to spend those months visiting unregistered Christian youth camps and bringing Bibles to our brothers and sisters in what was then the East Bloc of the Soviet Union. And I did.

But that isn’t what changed my life forever.

The leadership of the mission sent me to see if there was opportunity to serve people in a refugee camp 100 miles from Vienna. I actually complained and asked them to send someone else as I wanted to spend my time in Eastern Europe. But they didn’t change their minds (for which I am forever grateful). I made several visits to the camp while in Austria that year. It wasn’t until I returned to the states in December 1980 that I experienced the surprising and unmistakable call of God to return to Austria and serve refugees full-time.

Life changed.

This photo was taken before all of that while in Germany en route to Austria. I had no idea what was around the bend. I probably still don’t.

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The cheapest way to fly to Europe back then was via Icelandic Airlines to Luxemburg. We then drove iconic VW vans to Austria with an overnight stopover in Germany. The boy’s name is Arnie.

Walking through memories

Photo: Vienna Rathaus

I last stood here 15 years ago – when I called Austria home. It was here that God called me to serve refugees in December 1980. I remember moving to Europe in June 1981 with a big red backpack (with aluminum frame) and a duffle bag. Though not forced, it was my personal uprooting.

I returned to Minnesota 23 years later with a wife, two children and a German speaking golden retriever.

I was walking through a web of memories today. Looking forward to tomorrow.

A Friday

I spent my morning on my monthly video conference call with IAFR Europe Regional Leader (in France) discussing our ministry locations in Europe (France, Malta, Austria, Italy) and doing some problem solving together.

I had a lunch meeting with our Director of Church Training who recently returned from leading trainings in Germany and Italy – and her husband who serves as Assistant Director of Operations. They are based here in Minneapolis, but due to ministry travel schedules, this was the first time we’ve all met together in the past 5 weeks. It was important to debrief and reorient together.

I finished off my day in the office reviewing our FY 2017 audit and IRS 990 to prepare them for finalizing and submission. Not a lot of fun, but a critical part of protecting IAFR’s integrity.

Donna and I then drove out to the home of the pastor who went with me to Kakuma in April for a beautiful supper and debrief together. It was good for us to all decompress a bit more after re entry into life in the US. The pastor (Brian Doten) is also an IAFR US board member.

It’s late now and I’m pretty tired. But I head for bed with a heart filled with thankfulness for the remarkable team God has brought to IAFR.