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.

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