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.
Photo: friends serving refugees in Winnipeg
The Canadian immigration officer was looking at my passport.
Officer: You travel a lot. What do you do?
Me: “I serve refugees.
Officer: Where do you travel?
Me: A lot of places, but I visit Kenya most frequently.
Officer: Where do you work in Kenya?
Me (wondering where this is going): Kakuma refugee camp.
Officer: Do you work in other places in Kenya?
Me (a light went on): We’re you a Refugee in Kenya?
Me: Were you perhaps in Dadaab refugee camp?
Officer: Yes. Did you ever visit Dadaab?
Me: I have not. But isn’t it amazing that we are here together now – and you are welcoming me to Canada?
Officer: Yes. It is amazing indeed. Welcome to Canada.
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.
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 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.
Photo: Anthony telling his story
I do a fair bit of speaking at churches and other venues, but today’s gig was a bit more challenging than usual. I was asked to teach Sunday School at our church. Twice.
I wrestled this past week with figuring out how to talk about forced displacement in a way that connects with kids.
It was helpful to partner with Anthony, a young man who spent much of his life as a refugee before finally getting resettled to the US (the Twin Cities). We actually met a few years ago during a visit to Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi.
So I helped the kids get a basic understanding of forced displacement by first unpacking the story of Jesus’ childhood – including his flight to Egypt as a refugee. My hope is that this will help them understand that refugees are not bad or dangerous people, but rather people in need of safety – just like Jesus and his family.
We then talked about homesickness and how good it is to be able to return home after a vacation. My hope is that this helped them understand the pain and loss every refugee experiences.
Anthony then shared his story of fleeing war in DR Congo with his sister. They passed through many countries as refugees before he was finally resettled here. Most of the kids paid close attention.
We then showed them photos of refugee kids doing normal kid stuff. My hope is that they see these kids as kids just like themselves – just in very difficult circumstances.
Someone asked Anthony why so many refugee kids look happy in the photos. He said it’s true – many of the kids are actually happy. But he struggled to answer the question “Why?” He just said, “I don’t know. Somehow they just are.”
Against all odds, these kids who live in mud houses in forgotten refugee camps without electricity and running water, little food and used clothing – still play and laugh and smile and sing. It is truly amazing.
Click here to see for yourself (15 second video in Dzaleka refugee camp, Malawi).
I came away a bit unsure how much actually got through, but I trust God to somehow take what was shared and use it to create space in their hearts and minds for refugees.
I also came away with great appreciation for those committed to teaching Sunday School regularly!
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.
Wow. This is so cool! I watched a bunch of talks this rainy morning here in Minnesota. I visit Kakuma 3 times a year which makes it even more amazing. I hope you will listen to at least a few of today’s remarkable TEDx Talks from Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya. They will renew your hope and awaken fresh compassion.