Refugee: An outsider, a stranger. Someone forced to leave their homes, their countries, and many times, their loved ones and families, for the purpose of finding safety in another location. Our world has reached a staggering high for displaced individuals. Time Magazine recently reported that 1 in 122 people is now a refugee, an internally displaced person or seeking asylum. The average number of people displaced each day in 2014 was 42,500 (Time Magazine, Special Report. Exodus. October 19, 2015).
In 2014, I traveled to Rwanda with a team of psychologists, social workers, and counselors to meet with local caregivers, offering training in trauma healing. We visited the Kigeme Congolese Refugee camp. As we walked through the camp, children greeted us and followed us around, holding hands. The conditions were humbling, sobering. Most of the camp’s 18,000 refugees had already lived there for two years—separated from their families and unsure when (or if) they’d be able to go back home. Yet, they sang of hope for return.
Just a year later, some refugees like those we met have made their way to us. The US plans to resettle approximately 50,000 Congolese refugees, and this year, 250 of them have already relocated to Kentucky. I visited these new immigrants in Louisville, and as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I began to see their traumatic transition firsthand. I saw my country through the eyes of a refugee.
I witnessed what it is like to start over with minimal to no resources. Even the small percentage of refugees who make it to the US face seemingly insurmountable barriers. In a new place and culture, they need to learn to navigate every area of life, from the marvel of accessing running water to the use of common household appliances. We witnessed an organization, Gate of Hope Ministries, as they ministered to their city’s refugees by accompanying them to doctor’s appointments, translating for them at school meetings, providing cell phones or household items, advocating for activities for their families, and guiding children and teenagers as they settle into American life.
We witnessed advocacy and empowerment. Nzeyimana, a Rwandan immigrant who works for Gate of Hope Ministries, provided us with a driving tour of Louisville, pointing out areas where immigrants live and sharing some of their stories as we traveled. She sees their trauma and her care for them is evident. She provides listening ears and she advocates for them.
One example of Nzeyimana’s advocacy has been to create a space for a community garden. “Africans are used to farms. We know they need a place to farm.” Nzeyimana and her friends found an empty lot in the city and organized a petition to obtain the land. Next year, approximately fifty people will have opportunity for space in the garden, including individual plots and commercial sections which will yield produce that will be sold at a nearby grocery store and through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
Nzeyimana is also advocating for more mental health resources and greater collaboration among helping organizations. She inspired a local church to organize a monthly clothing closet for donations. In addition, refugees come to the US having endured great trauma from countries affected by war and from years of living in meager conditions in refugee camps. She desires to become more equipped to address the trauma so many refugees have experienced.
We witnessed the joys and challenges of cultural and familial interaction in a new context. Refugee parents are raising children in a culture that is not their own. Children become affected by two cultures. They may sacrifice some of their family’s culture in order to assimilate and be accepted by peers, but they may feel torn between two identities. As we visited three families, each taught us something about the joys and challenges of interacting with more than one culture.
We visited with one family including two parents and 7 children who had arrived in the US 2 weeks earlier. Within their first week here, they were already learning how to access emergency medical services for one of their children. I sat and talked with their 18 year old son who seemed lonely and eager. He shared some of his observations about American culture, and expressed his fear of being here and starting new. He said, “This is like coming to the Promised Land. I just wish I could go back and visit my friends, even for one weekend…” I tried to befriend him, inspire and encourage him, and to give him hope.
Another visit included meeting a father and 2 of his 8 children. His wife was working, and we learned that due to physical challenges, he is unable to work. Gate of Hope Ministries’ staff member, Nzeyimana, challenged him to find support to share his history and the trauma he has endured during his life, thinking this may alleviate some of his physical symptoms. As we sat in a dark room, I helped his 10-year-old daughter with her homework. She was struggling with her school work, and I encouraged her to persevere. Later I learned she has a learning disability and has only limited support from her school.
Finally, we met a woman who arrived 1 year ago and recently moved to a new apartment. She insisted on cooking for us, an example of her seemingly unlimited hospitality.
We witnessed opportunity. Why have I never truly put myself in the shoes of a refugee in the US? Driving in a rental van with a Rwandan woman devoted to this ministry and accompanying her during these visits gave me an inside perspective on the refugee crisis impacting our world. It was a sobering privilege to see firsthand the challenge of relocation, the cultural tensions, and the suffering many refugees carry with them—and to offer a small measure of kindness by listening and helping.
Refugees carry with them stories of trauma and loss that add significant challenges to their transition. Clement Zenko, a Rwandan trauma healing caregiver, explains: “It is very difficult to imagine the situation of a refugee. They have run to escape danger, often unexpected . . . . Take an adult person and put him in a situation of a baby immediately after birth. He is naked, nothing in his hands, nothing in his pocket. Anyway, we can’t talk about a pocket because he has no clothes, no bank account, no property, and he is alone.”
As a person from the US attempting to support a refugee family, sitting in a bare apartment with people who speak a different language and who come from a different culture can be awkward and daunting. To serve an African family in your own town does not include the glamour and adventure of traveling to foreign country. It requires far more dedication and staying power than a one or two week mission trip. But this, my fellow Christians, is our call to practice hospitality. God has called us to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19, 20) and this is the mission field coming to us. It is here in our midst.
I asked Nzeyimana what type of contact their ministry has had with US churches. She respectfully gave an example of asking support for one specific project: “You know how it goes with big churches. Sometimes there is bureaucracy and it takes a long time to make a decision of what they can do and whether or not they want to do it…” Meanwhile, the needs exist. An 18 year old is lonely, reluctant to leave the house and to meet new people, longing to play soccer. A 14 year old with learning difficulties needs someone to sit with her and help her experience accomplishment in an area of her life. A woman raising her nieces and nephew needs someone to encourage her to endure when she is weary of parenting adolescents. A man needs encouragement in finding a job, a woman in navigating the grocery store.
There are barriers like language and cultural difference, but my visit to Louisville proved that these barriers aren’t enough to keep us from the opportunities to follow Christ’s example as we seek to love the sojourner (Deuteronomy 10), practice hospitality, show dignity, and learn. To provide a point of connection during a fragile time of relocation is to equip and empower the receiver, the giver, and the country we can now both call home.
How would Jesus respond to refugees? He understood the journey of a refugee. He left his home. He was a stranger. He was rejected. He came so that he would “gather those who are cast out, heal those who are brokenhearted, clean and heal wounds, and lift up the humble (Psalm 147:2,3,6). The Body of Christ joins Christ’s mission because to follow Him is to not only love the aliens and strangers, but to remember: this is not our home. We, too, are temporary exiles, waiting for our true home.
How to help. This blog seeks to describe the needs of refugees around our world and near our own communities. Opportunities and needs to support refugees in the US and around our world will only increase in the months ahead. Each of us needs to consider our response. To consider how you may assist refugees:
- Learn about your local refugee population.
- Find agencies in your area that sponsor refugee resettlement. Identify needs and opportunities to support these agencies.
- Volunteer as a co-sponsor to support and assist refugees in their adjustments to our communities.
- Assess resources available to those who have relocated. Resources should include what will assist and equip refugees with their spiritual, emotional and physical development. Where there are gaps in resources, consider how you, your family, your faith community, or others in your sphere of community influence can fill this need.
- Consider a role beyond giving money or short-term contact. Offer the value of a long-term commitment of friendship.
Heather Evans, LCSW, has been a social worker for over 14 years. She serves as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in a private counseling practice in Coopersburg, Pennsylvania. She is also Co-founder and Chair of Aftercare Team of VAST (Valley Against Sex Trafficking) Coalition in the Lehigh Valley, PA. Heather has been a member of NACSW since 2001.