Celebrating 33 Years

Photo: Donna and I outside of the place where we first met in Gablitz (near Vienna in the Wienerwald). We were able to visit Austria this year. It was the first time we’ve been back together since we relocated to the US in 2003. We weren’t sure we would be able to find this house again – but we did!

Although it isn’t until tomorrow, we’re celebrating our 33rd anniversary today by going out for a nice meal together in downtown Minneapolis..

We first met back in the summer of 1982. I was working in a refugee camp in the tiny village of Bad Kreuzen, 100 miles upstream from Vienna on the Danube river.

Donna had come to Austria with the summer missions program of Slavic Gospel Association to smuggle Bibles into what was then known as the “East Bloc” – Communist countries that were under the strong influence of what was then the Soviet Union.

I drove down to Vienna to help the summer workers settle into the former Jaegerhaus in Gablitz.

I still remember when I saw her first – on the back steps of the Haus. Whether you believe in it or not, it was love at first sight.

It took a year or so before we began dating by airmail between Bad Kreuzen and Columbia, Missouri. For years, we feverishly wrote letters back and forth on the thinnest paper known to man.

I finally proposed in 1984 during a Colorado ski trip with my family (they encouraged me to invite Donna). We timed our wedding around plans for me to go to seminary in 1985. We would marry during Christmas break.

Although those seminary plans fell through, our wedding plans did not. We married in Kansas City, took our honeymoon in the Collegiate Peaks of Colorado, and then settled into our first home in the lush rolling hills of the province of Upper Austria, in early 1986.

The rest is history :

The immigration Officer

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?

Officer: Yes.

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.

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.

—–

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.

A friend in need

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.

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.

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?