I’ll be speaking at Hope Presbyterian Church in Richfield, MN, tomorrow morning. I’m taking Pastor Jean Pierre Gatera with me as the church asked me to share about the refugee church and Pastor Gatera spent 20 years of his life in Kakuma refugee camp – and many of those years as a refugee pastor. I can think of no better way to introduce them to the refugee church than to give them the privilege of listening to Pastor Gatera.
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.
Photo: the toilets in the “5 Star” Jungle
Everything about this place works together to strip people of their humanity.
200+ human beings live in this abandoned warehouse. They affectionately call it the “5 Star”. It’s anything but that. The smell of urine is strong upon entry. It’s a health disaster waiting to happen.
Paul Sydnor (IAFR) and the team are praying that portable toilets will be provided for these people ASAP. It’s clearly in everyone’s best interest.
We recognize that we might need to be the ones to provide the sanitation. We have no idea how. Still we pray, “Lord Jesus, please provide these people with sanitation- and if possible, please let us participate in your answer to this prayer.”
So be it.
“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.
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.
Wild fires are consuming the northwest. Hurricane Florence is plowing into the Carolinas. Typhoon Mangkhut is pummeling the Philippines. And Minnesota is dry, warm and breezy.
It would be easy to think all is well, projecting the peace and beauty around me onto others. But we know that isn’t the case.
Bigger than all these natural disasters is the number of people uprooted by human causes – war, violations of human rights, failed states and persecution.
68.5 Million people were forcibly displaced at the beginning of the year. Another 44,400 people have been forced to flee their homes every day since then. It is an unspeakable tragedy and a rampant evil in the world.
It’s easy to look out my window and think all is well. It is not.
The changing demographic of refugee resettlement in the US is impacting local churches.
I had an encouraging phone call today with a pastor serving with Elmbrook Church in Milwaukee, WI. He told me about a ministry center that they set up several years ago to serve refugees within their community and how the church is involved and connecting with resettled refugees. It has been a blessing for all.
But now refugee resettlement numbers to the US have been drastically reduced, US resettlement agencies are closing down. Precious few people are given the opportunity to begin rebuilding their shattered lives here in the US. Elmbrook’s ministry is among those affected. They fear that this opportunity for ministry is disappearing. They are evaluating whether or not to keep the ministry center open.
Thankfully, they are not thinking of giving up. Our conversation affirmed that they might be able to tweak the present center into something that reaches out to more than the newest arrivals to the community from abroad. We imagined what it might be like to transform it into a culture center that welcomes and serves the broader community of refugees, asylum-seekers and immigrants.
Elmbrook is still evaluating how to best proceed, but I came away from our call deeply encouraged to hear of a local church with a big heart for refugees and migrants in its community. May God raise up 100,000 churches around the world that share such a heart and commitment.
The world changes for the better whenever a local church loves its neighbors.
I keep in touch with a few of my friends in refugee camps through WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.
One of them reached out to me asking for prayer as she is very sick. She sent me this photo of her laying on the floor of her shelter with her husband reading the Koran over her. She wrote:
“I am so sick and weak. I am praying to Allah so that I can get healthy again.”
We have met many times and she has blessed me with hospitality and honest conversations. She often requests prayer and welcomes my offers to pray for her in Jesus’ name.
I have often told her how the Bible reveals to us that God is near and not far away – and that he sees and hears and cares deeply for us.
I count it a privilege to pray for her and ask that you would join with me. Let’s pray that God would graciously heal her body and restore her strength. Let’s also pray that God would reveal to her the depth and breadth of his love for her. In Jesus’ name.
I was starting to experience inconsistent light readings and shutter issues, so it was time to bit the bullet and get a new camera. I look forward to learning how recent advances in camera design and functionality will improve my ability to help you and others see the refugee highway up close and personal.
Images like the one on the header of this blog play an essential role in helping those who support and pray for the work of IAFR to understand the contexts in which we serve. In this way, my camera serves as an eye to the refugee highway.
I am the chief photographer and publications department of IAFR and I look forward to seeing how this new friend (photo) will capture honest and captivating images that document stories of human suffering and resilience in our times.
As you probably know, cameras are not cheap. If you would like to help cover the costs of this Sony a7 III, just make a special donation to IAFR designated for “Tom Albinson”. Click here to donate online now.
I took a few experimental photos this weekend. Lots to learn, but I am very happy with what this camera is able to capture. I am looking forward to taking it on my upcoming visit to our team in France in September and then to Kakuma in October. In the meantime, I will keep learning and practicing…
Above: Motorcycle on Main Street. Henderson, MN.
Above: A backyard sunflower (planted by a bird) struggles to cope with the droughtAbove: Minnesota native wild sunflowers appear to be taking flight in our backyardAbove: A late bloomer in its glory (backyard)