In December 2012 I gave my first academic presentation about psychological traumas that often impact refugees. I had a glimpse into the problems that they faced such as PSTD, but I had no emotional connection. There was no compassion or empathy, just comprehension of the clinical issues.
It wasn’t until 2013 that I was hit by the weight of all the problems these individuals carry. The stories I heard still ring in my mind, reminding me of what it means to lose everything.
I remember stories of families living in refugee camp squalor for 20+ years and forgetting that they ever had a home,
a mother losing her newborn in a fire that destroyed the entire refugee camp,
a teacher trying to give the children in the camp a chance at an education with little to no resources,
a family so persecuted because of their ethnicity that they had been forced to move to three countries before they found refuge in the States,
families who had been stripped of their dignity in order to survive and eat,
and individuals who had lost everyone they loved through civil war.
This is their reality. It’s why two Nepalese refugees committed suicide within the first month of my internship. It’s why when a child was killed in a hit and run, the whole community remembered the pain of losing a loved one. Because they’ve all seen and experienced it.
However, I cannot even begin to describe the joy and hope that can exist when refugees are just given a chance. It doesn’t matter that they can’t speak English, or don’t know how to flush a toilet, or are forced to take night-shift jobs at a meat-packing plant hours away.
Give them a chance at life, and you will see the world change. I’ve seen community leaders rise up as advocates, social workers, teachers and pastors. I’ve seen a malnourished child with rickets, tuberculosis and autism able to go to school, learn English and eventually attend community college. I’ve seen women who are illiterate able to support their families through small businesses and learn to read and write for the very first time.
But my favorite story of all is of a family I mentored with my husband and a few other friends. The family arrived from Nepal around 2013, with literally nothing. I remember standing outside their apartment in the snow, waiting to be invited in. They were scared, we were scared and we had no way to communicate. There was a lot of confusion as to why a bunch of white people (and one African) were standing outside their door. Finally the refugee agency translator arrived and explained that we were there to help them acclimate to the US.
We visited on a regular basis, and tried the best we could. Loving this family meant driving to their apartment at midnight to take their sick little girl to the emergency room. It meant advocating for them with doctors. It also meant showing them how to use the bus system. And eating loads of spicy food and chai tea. And making sure the kids had their immunizations up to date. And helping them figure out the grocery store and Sams Club (Nepalese LOVE Sams Club – I think I still have rice left in my car from that). And dancing to Gangnam style with the kids.
But it took time to see progress. At some point, we had to say, “Okay, it’s your turn to take the bus to the grocery store all on your own.” We had to let them stand on their own two feet, even if that meant they were going to stumble.
When I left for South Africa, the mother of the family presented me with all her gold bangles and jewelry. I cried, she cried and we stood there realizing that God had brought us together for a reason. In that moment, I needed her just as much as she needed me. She had taught me how to live out my faith in a way that asked me to give up my selfishness.
Two years later, we found the entire family speaking English, working, going to school and fulfilled with life. After having lived in a refugee camp for 20 years, the family had somewhere to call home. They were living the American dream. Even if that dream meant a tiny apartment in a dodgy neighborhood. Or a job that paid peanuts. They were safe and they were together.
My heart still aches for refugees. Right now the political climate does not reflect God’s heart for the outsider. However, I am seeing Christians forced to deal with this issue for the first time. I’m seeing the reality that we in this field of work have always known, finally flashing all over CNN. Families are being ripped apart, just because of their nationality.
One thing I know is that is that we have to take a chance on refugees. Yes, it cost money and resources. Yes, it might be risky. But if you and your family were being persecuted because of your religion, race or ethnicity, what risks would you take to protect your family? What would you not do to ensure your children had an opportunity to succeed? What would you do if you had no financial safety net or resources to get you out of a civil war? What would YOU do?
It’s this mindset that challenged me to leave my 4 month old baby with a Congolese refugee when I had to go back to work, or what motivated me to be a part of the xenophobia relief response in South Africa when I was entirely too pregnant. It’s this mindset that keeps me up at night, thinking about what it must be like as a Syrian refugee.
I pray you don’t let the photos disappear from your mind. The photos of families, children and elderly fleeing for their lives.
I hope you allow those photos to motivate you to compassionate action and justice. This is the heart of God.