The First Friend

On a busy downtown street, at the intersection of several bus routes, there was a little store that was hardly noticeable from the outside—the first Somali grocery story in our city. Inside the run-down building, a couple of aisles held items that were considered necessities to the East African immigrants and refugees that frequented it: dates and cookies, exotic spices and perfumes, special sticks that served as toothbrushes. On the other side of a partition hung a few brightly patterned, flowing skirts for sale. Behind a counter, halal meat could be purchased.

Eventually, a restaurant opened next door. The dining area was clean and white, but sparse. The large windows across the front provided diners with an unobstructed view of the street. There was no “ambiance” to speak of, save the poster of the menu that hung on the wall. Orders were placed at the small window beside it that opened into the kitchen, where a couple of men were busy grilling meat, cooking rice, and slicing bananas. The restaurant had moderate success during the week, but business really picked up on Friday afternoons, as men returned from the mosque hungry.

One July afternoon, DA and I sat at a table, waiting for our food and watching the traffic pass. A younger man wearing a white jellabiya with a koofiyad upon his head brought our plates out to us. We had never seen him in the restaurant before, so we struck up a conversation with him. It turned out that the man, Hussein, and his family had only been in the United States for about a week. As we continued to probe, he described his journey to America. He was part of the Bantu or Maay Maay people who were beginning to be brought to our city.

Hussein had been born in Somalia where he grew up on a farm, surrounded by mango trees, and monkeys, and a crocodile his uncle had supposedly placed a curse on. A civil war was raging in Somalia, so it wasn’t surprising that other Somalis frequently attacked the farm. Hussein’s family was a large one, with many brothers and sisters. His father had married multiple wives which was allowed by Islamic tradition. After his parents were brutally killed, the rest of the family felt so threatened that they fled their farm, the mangos, the monkeys, and that confounded crocodile. They walked many miles to the Kenyan border. Along the way, some died of exhaustion, starvation, or from animal attacks. They were relieved when they finally reached Dadaab, a refugee camp in the desert of Eastern Kenya.

Their relief would be short-lived. Dadaab, is the largest refugee camp in the world and is severely overcrowded. Built to house only 90,000 people, it currently contains about half a million. Refugees are not allowed to leave the camp and enter the rest of Kenya, leaving them with little hope of a future beyond the camp boundaries. They are wholly dependent upon handouts. By 2003, it was not unusual for refugees who were beginning to be resettled in America to have lived in a refugee camp for ten to fifteen years. Many of the other young adults who currently reside in Dadaab, (because they still wait for the opportunity to be resettled in a host country), have never set foot inside of Somalia, but have lived their entire lives in a Kenyan refugee camp.

After being chosen for resettlement in America, Hussein’s family was moved to Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern, Kenya, where the average daytime temperature is 104 degrees (Fahrenheit). Here, they learned some basic lessons about what to expect in America. Unfortunately, this education did not adequately prepare them for their new home.

Their new home, which they had moved into only a week prior to our meeting, was an apartment complex past its prime in a diverse area of town. This particular building has provided fresh starts for refugees from Vietnam, Cuba, Iraq, Bosnia, Nepal, and Burundi over the years, offering a lower rent rate with multiple bedrooms for larger families, and it provides easy access to the city’s bus system. A local refugee organization was charged with helping prepare the refugees’ new place, which included providing hand-me-down furniture and clothing. The refugees were expected to pay back the cost of their flight over the next several years. They were encouraged to go to English classes that were offered around the city, and they were expected to find jobs within three months of arriving. If a church or another organization decided to sponsor a particular refugee family, a small stipend would be provided each month. It could use to buy things like work boots, for example, as one Karen friend of ours did after he found a factory job. Most, however, were never sponsored.  Food stamps would begin eventually, but that process, of course, takes time.

Hussein’s family had not yet received their food stamps, he told us. He was filling in at the restaurant to earn a bit of money and to hopefully take home a plate of leftovers at the end of the day. His story broke our hearts and we wondered what we could do. When he returned to check on our table, we awkwardly asked if we could take some groceries to his wife and children. Hussein readily agreed, blessing us for our offer to help. In careful print, he wrote out the address on a scrap piece of paper: 154 Global Arms Apartments, Apartment 2.

Serving Refugees: My Journey

I have felt for a while now that I would like to write about our weird little life. In some ways, it astounds me—“How did we get here?!” In other ways, the oddity of it all has become almost monotonous—“Of course a refugee I’ve never seen before from Burundi just rang the doorbell to ask when my next English class starts. Guess I’d better pull out my teaching materials and plan one. Ho, hum.”

It seems that it’s been a long journey. My husband and I were married on May 17, 2003. The first half of our lives was spent in rural Tennessee—he lived on a farm, while I lived in the “city,” which means that we had a Wal-Mart. We met in high school, dated, were engaged for way too long, and finally said our vows before a sleepy-eyed crowd at 6 AM, just as the sun rose and shone down through the stained glass window of Jesus that made the early hour choice worth it. Eventually, we found ourselves in a much larger city to our north. I came here first to go to college, but once we were married and he found a teaching job, we bought our first house. We knew then that our time here would not be short.

Along the way, I took a class trip to East Africa and fell in love with the refugee population I met there. They were displaced by civil war in their home country and now overflowed the slums and refugee camps of the more stable nation next door. The beauty of the landscape there was overwhelming enough, but the people were beautiful in their own right. Both the host country natives and the refugees were generous and hospitable, even while many lived in poverty. But the needs, too, were great. People needed jobs. People needed education. People needed the hope of Jesus, something I had found only a few years prior.

I’m not exactly what attracted me to refugee populations in the first place. Perhaps it was because, at 18, I had also suffered personal tragedy—I lost my dad to a fast-moving cancer. At 20, I found myself all alone, friendless in a new city, and living in a basic dorm room with school-provided furniture. I arrived with a few bags and immediately had to find a job on campus doing whatever was available to pay my rent. I regularly got lost driving around the city. I used phone cards to call home and wept from loneliness when the line would cut-off abruptly, before I could say good-bye. Even once I was married, we were perpetually broke, buying Aldi’s generic, one-ply toilet paper (or nabbing it from campus bathrooms) and relying upon the inadequate bus system when our car quit a week after our wedding. Often, between our four part-time jobs and my education, we’d have less than $4.00 leftover at the end of the pay cycle.

I had also experienced the generosity of the Church. Just before my dad was diagnosed, I began to date my now-husband, D.A. He (or his mom) would often drive the 40-minute round-trip to pick me up and take me to their church on Sunday mornings. I was just excited to get out of the house and spend time socializing. The content of the sermons meant less to me than the fact that, even after a year, the pastor could never remember my name. That fall, once we learned of my dad’s lung cancer, I began to seek God like never before. I begged for healing. I committed to read a certain amount of the Bible each day, and had mediocre success. I searched hard for encouraging verses, often taken out of context, to give me peace during what had turned into a real bummer of a senior year. I asked God, (and youth leaders, and pastors, and any friend who called himself a Christian), all of the impossibly hard questions that crossed my mind.

Anyway, one Sunday morning, soon after I began following Jesus, Mrs. Dot stood up to announce that the benevolence committee (What was that anyway? And while we’re asking questions, What the heck is a Lottie Moon?!) needed food donations to help the needy in our community. One Saturday soon after, D.A. and I helped his parents with a small job that earned us $20 to split. We decided, in light of the announcement, that we would spend it on non-perishables for the benevolence bin. With great joy, we wandered up and down the aisles of the Food Lion, choosing only the best: brand name macaroni and cheese, the largest canister of peanut butter, vegetables normal people eat. On Sunday morning, we sneaked into the church basement and secretly delivered our stash. We were quite proud that we were going to bless some poor family and no one would ever know it was us.   Isn’t that what Jesus said to do?

After Sunday night service, Mrs. Dot asked me to bring the car around, because she had something for my family. She knew my dad was no longer able to work the long hours and double shifts he once had.   I pulled up, bewildered, just as she stepped out into the night with . . . the benevolence bin: the macaroni and cheese, the giant peanut butter, the corn and peas, and a few additional cans that we hadn’t purchased. We were the poor, needy family! Needy? The idea had never before crossed my mind.

Once I got past the immediate shame, I realized that the church was only doing the thing that Jesus told them to do, loving my family, in the same way that we had obeyed him earlier. I saw that just as I couldn’t have pride about providing the items, I also couldn’t have shame in accepting them. It might have been the first time I understood the church as more than just a social organization and as a community working together for one another’s benefit, the actual hands and feet of Christ.

When my dad died just two weeks before high school graduation, I was a new believer who experienced the safety net of God’s grace. As I found myself in greater need of Jesus, I fell more in love with him. He was faithful! He would not leave me, even if I lost all of my family. This understanding went hand-in-hand with the love I saw in my first real church family. They wrote notes, showed up at the funeral, and prayed. Mrs. Brenda made the white dress I was required to wear under my graduation robe and my future mother-in-law planned a party to celebrate with my family afterward.

At all stages in my Christian life, and in every church we have been a part of, we have seen God’s love expressed through the community of believers. I really don’t know how we would have survived the frantic early days of our marriage without the Church. And we were English-speaking Americans, with college educations. We knew how to count change for the bus and how to fill out job applications. We knew not to put a fork in the microwave.

I also learned what it was like to be dropped in the middle of a busy African city with an English-to-Swahili dictionary and a lot of prayer. I saw what it was like to place my life in someone else’s hands—in my case, my Muslim tour guide’s—not knowing if I would be robbed and left in a garbage heap somewhere, with my terrible college ID photo posted on the news back home. I watched her angrily chew out a tall man behind us who thought he was entitled to stroke my long red hair. He quickly retracted his hand, as Swahili flew from her tongue. She was bound to protect me, after all. Day after day, she showed me around the city with great care, served me chai in her aunt’s mattress store, helped me find a safe ride, and routinely scored the best prices for me at the market. This girl was gold.

So, maybe I identify so strongly with refugees because I know that as a Christian, this world is not my home. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve experienced great loss. Or it could be because I know what it is like to be in need and to find myself alone in a new place. Or it may be because I have experienced times of deep loneliness, even while in the midst of others.

When I returned home, my husband and I began to search for my African tour-guide’s people group in our city.   What we found was that many were beginning to be resettled in America at about that same time. Refugees were routinely stepping off airplanes and into a whole new world and we were just in time to experience the start of it. Though the work was hard, and we never did truly accomplish all that we hoped for, in the end, I do have stories. I want to share a few of those stories.

Give me time—I’m mothering a houseful of people, but I will share my stories here.   I promise to write if you will promise to read.  I will change some names to protect privacy. I will attempt to be as honest as I can in my writing, while also acknowledging that I may get events out of order or forget actual dates or possibly misquote someone.   If you know for a fact that something I’ve said is incorrect, please let me know. Many stories will be positive, but I will include some of the negative ones, as well, because refugee work is hard. Just like pastoring is hard. And teaching is hard. And parenting is hard. But it’s also worth it.

A few words of warning:

  1. I write long.  And I can’t change that.
  2. I am not a professional blogger, which is why I don’t know how to manipulate the settings on WordPress to make this look like a “real” blog.
  3. I’m no Jen Hatmaker, though I’d love to meet her, but then I’d probably just be too embarrassed to say anything, so let’s just forget I mentioned it.

But enough about me.  It’s time to tell their stories.

Dear Refugees

Dear Refugees,

If you’re already in this country—the United States of America—and you’re in my neighborhood, please feel free to drop by sometime. Our house is small by modern standards, but somehow everyone always fits. We may need to scoot our chairs a bit closer. If you’ll let me know you’re coming, I’ll set an extra place at the table—for you, and for all eight of your kids, if you decide to bring them along. It might just be rice and beans, but that always goes a long way in our family. Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure that there have been occasions in the past when God miraculously stretched the rice just enough to feed everyone at my table. (Those times always remind me of his faithfulness.) If you forget to let me know you are coming over (and you probably will, because that’s the way relationships work in your native country), don’t worry; we’ll just have chai, coffee, or Tang, while we watch our kids play together. I will not fear that your religious beliefs will infect them like some kind of new bird flu that is contaminating our neighborhood.

If you are Christian, come! If you are Ethiopian Orthodox, come! If you are Muslim, come (I promise I won’t serve you pork)! I don’t care if you’re Hindu or Buddhist, Sunni or Shia, humanist or atheist, you are welcome at my table. If you’re a single male, I’ll ask you to come back after my husband is home. If you’re female, we’ll go inside and talk about where you come from and celebrate your victories of navigating a college class, the insurance system, or mass transit. I’ll lend you the air pump to inflate your bicycle tire, and I’ll be thankful when you return it to me. I’ll lend you our jumper cables and when they don’t come back, I’ll forgive you, because you win some, you lose some. (Seriously, though, if you find them, please bring them back.) We’ll pray for your family as they face difficulties back home. You can ask me to teach you to make fried chicken and then be disappointed that it doesn’t come out tasting like Indi’s. I’ll taste one of your dishes and try to hide the shock of the five-alarm fire in my mouth behind a glass of water.

I should warn you: I’ll probably talk about Jesus a lot during our visit. I’ll try not to be weird about it, but I am always talking about Jesus with my friends, and I consider you a friend, so it would be weird to avoid talking about Jesus with you. I know you, and you will likely talk about your faith, as well. That’s cool with me. In America, people often try not to talk about our spiritual beliefs for fear of offending someone. But where you are from, your faith is a part of your everyday life and it affects everything you do. My faith in Jesus affects everything in my life, too. I will tell you about what he is teaching me and possibly share my Jesus Story with you (some people call this a “testimony”). I might tell you a story from the Bible if the moment is right. If you are seeking an answer to a problem, I will give you an answer that is based in the Bible, because that is how I make decisions. I will pray for you regularly, because I pray for my friends. I may invite you to church or to a small group, (or to a birthday party, a holiday celebration, or a road trip, because who doesn’t like to bring their friends deeper into their lives?).

If any of this bothers you, as it has a small number of acquaintances in the past, I respect your decision not to visit again. As they say: “It’s a free country!” But, if you decide to continue growing our relationship, (and I sincerely hope you do), please know that I have no plans to “convert” you. You see, Christians believe that only God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, can change anyone into a Christian. It’s an internal change. People can’t do that to one another. Hanging out with me doesn’t make you a Christian and I recognize that, so I’m not going to spontaneously baptize you, or kidnap you and drop you off at a church building, or something. I also don’t expect that you will act like me. I hope you’ll be honest and kind and I know you’ll be generous and hospitable (you’ll probably out-hospitality me), but I don’t expect that you won’t use “That.Really.Bad.Curse.Word” or that you’ll eat ham just because I set it in front of you (and I won’t, remember? I already promised.) I don’t expect you to bow your head and close your eyes when we pray before we eat, although you are welcome to. If you want to share a plate with me and eat with your hand, let’s give it a shot!

If you decide to join me in following Jesus at some point in the future—great! I would love to have a new brother or sister. But if you never, ever do that, I want you to remember that I loved you, truly loved you, in the name of Jesus. Others may be successful for their own reasons, but I know that on my own, I would never have it in me to love a stranger, an immigrant, a refugee, someone with another language and skin tone, who comes from a land best known for pirates, terrorists, and AK-47’s. This, Friend, is the power of Jesus in me.

So come on over soon and hang out with us. We’d love to meet you.