World Refugee Day

June 20th is World Refugee Day, and our local refugee resettlement agency always celebrates near that date. This is one of my favorite parties of the year. There’s a bounce house and other games for the kids, face painting, free t-shirts, and a potluck lunch. Refugee potlucks are the best, because the food comes from the traditions of a multitude of countries. It’s truly authentic international fare. I don’t even know the names of most of the food I eat, but it’s always delicious.

The table centerpieces are all patriotic: miniature American flags, red, silver, and blue beads, sparkly red and blue stars.

Refugees attend our party from about a dozen countries of origin, mostly from the Middle East and Africa. A representative from each country stands in front and introduces him- or herself and says hello in their native tongue.

One year we had the choir from the local African refugee church sing for us. It was beautiful! They sang “Alleluia Amen!” and prayed to Jesus in Swahili. After the choir we were treated to a performance on the djembe drum by a man from Ghana. Whoo-ee! He got people out of their seats and dancing. After his riff, someone put on an iPod, and like every refugee party I’ve ever been to, the celebration turned into a dance party. Africans from many different countries danced with Iraqis, Afghans, Kurds, Cubans, Karen people, and Chin. It doesn’t get much better than that. Even if you’re not much of a dancer, the beauty of the unity in diversity is clear for all to see. We’re all celebrating freedom.

The UNHCR just released new, updated numbers. At the end of 2016, there were 65.6 million displaced people in the world, more than at any time ever in history. The numbers can be overwhelming, and undoubtedly are even higher now. But those numbers represent individual people, created in the image of God and loved by God. When you get involved personally and get to know individually people who are refugees, the story changes. And so do you.

 

 

 

 

 

Seeking Refugee

I don’t typically ask my refugee friends much about their lives in their home countries. By definition, the lives they fled were traumatic; talking about those experiences can tear open old wounds and retraumatize my friends.

But Bibi (Swahili for grandmother) insisted that she wanted to tell her story.

At a recent event, Bibi got that opportunity. To illustrate her story, we projected artwork from a book Bibi was part of creating, Voices for Peace. Two English sisters had visited the refugee camp in Tanzania where Bibi lived, and taught art classes to help the refugees tell their stories and focus on peace. Through an interpreter and her own tears, Bibi told about the war in Congo—which continues to rage on today—and how and why she and others fled. One illustration showed a grieving man with two children; many of the women were brutalized and murdered, leaving their children motherless. Another illustration showed a boat full of people, a common way to escape across Lake Tanganyika; the next illustration was of a soldier waiting on the other side to kill everyone on the boat.

Though it was difficult for Bibi to tell her story, she wanted people to know the affects of war in Congo. She asked for prayer for her two children, who are still waiting in refugee camps. And she told about the ten year process it took for her to come to America.

Bibi’s story was only one part of the evening. We were also privileged to hear Matthew Soerens of World Relief bring a biblical message of how the Church can respond to the refugee crisis. Matthew speaks truth with compassion and humor, based on his own many years of experience with refugees, and his commitment to the Bible’s teachings. Matthew’s message was practical, informative, and inspiring.

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Finally, we heard from a panel of local service providers who shared about how they are serving refugees and immigrants in Colorado Springs: from cultural mentoring, teaching  English language and citizenship preparation, to pastoring immigrant churches, offering low cost legal counsel, and a free women’s health clinic.

People of faith are responding to the refugee crisis. But when only 12% of evangelical Christians say their views on the arrivals of immigrants are primarily informed by the Bible, something more needs to be done. The Bible is clear about God’s commands to love strangers and welcome foreigners. Christians today need to hear and act on those commands. Millions of refugees like Bibi are counting on us.

 

Many thanks to all who participated in Seeking Refuge. Special thanks to Matthew Soerens and World Relief, who generously granted permission for me to post these slides here.

Spring Break!

“The sustained effort of writing, of putting pen to paper so many hours a day when there are human beings around who need me, when there is sickness, and hunger, and sorrow, is a harrowingly painful job.”
(Dorothy Day, legendary Catholic social activist, in her autobiography The Long Loneliness)

I do not claim to be a social activist on par with Dorothy Day, but this sentence struck a chord in me when I read it. I haven’t been posting much on my blog lately precisely because I’m too busy with actual human beings to take the time to write. I mentor two refugee families, participate in numerous community meetings, lead a prayer group and a sewing group—all related to refugees and immigrants, and I volunteer in a family immigration legal services office. In the last few weeks alone I’ve accompanied families to meetings, banks, government offices, and doctor appointments; I’ve helped enroll a child in kindergarten, and accompanied her and her parents on her first day of school; and I went with a mom to the apartment management office to complain about a toilet that had been backed up for waaay too long. I’ve translated documents from Spanish to English, brought a new student to register for ESL class, and accompanied an immigrant to a court hearing. And that’s just a sampling. But despite my busyness, my husband and others remind me that writing about my experiences is also important.

Happily, both I and my mentor families were free from work on the two best weather days of the spring break week! On Monday two other mentors met me at the zoo with our refugee family from Democratic Republic of Congo: a single mother and her three daughters. We fed the giraffes, visited the zebras and the African porcupine, the lions, and the elephants. Did you know the Swahili word for lion is simba? And the Swahili for elephant is tembo? The girls climbed on all the elephant sculptures, and I’m pretty sure they spent more than their fair share of time inside the airplane, even in the pilot’s seat. We enjoyed a picnic feast, we rode the carousel, and hung out with the primates. The girls climbed on more sculptures and posed for more photos. It was a fabulous start to spring break.

On Thursday the weather was beautiful again, and I returned to the zoo, this time with my Karen family from Burma. Although I’ve taken this family to the zoo in previous years, the husband/father just arrived in the U.S. a few months ago. He happily took photos of all the animals on his cell phone. The five-year-old daughter raced us through the zoo, with more energy than the rest of us combined. She climbed on all the sculptures; we fed the giraffes and the birds, played in the airplane, had a picnic lunch, and rode on the carousel.

These fun times with my families are just as important as the time I spend helping them navigate the complex systems of our country. Everyone needs a spring break. And while my families can’t afford to travel to California or Mexico, I can help them enjoy a special day, spent with friends and family, reveling in the diversity of God’s good creation. We all need time to have fun and make memories. Not only refugees and immigrants, but their mentors as well. Even our Creator tells us to observe sabbath. We all enjoyed the opportunity to have fun together, relaxing and being refreshed. And now, we’re stronger together to face whatever lies ahead.

Solidarity in Worship: Refugees

Recently I’ve been worshipping in solidarity with my immigrant and refugee brothers and sisters. What began as a demonstration of my support for them has resulted in amazing worship and feeding of my own soul.

Pastor Amy preached an insightful sermon on Matthew 25, educating her congregation about God’s call to welcome foreigners.

The call to welcome and care for those who are vulnerable, including the immigrant and the refugee, is not actually a partisan call. It is foundational to the Christian faith, a faith that is centered on the story of Jesus and that follows the story of the migration and movement of the Jewish people.
(Hannah Heinzekehr, The Mennonite)

Pastor Amy traced the history of migration through the Bible, as well as God’s frequent commands to care for the sojourners in His people’s midst.

At this church the members are encouraged to discuss the sermon with the pastor after the service, pushing back and asking tough questions. This experience was surprisingly encouraging. Most congregants were supportive of refugees, and asked good questions.

The following week we experienced powerful worship based on Psalm 23. Pastor Amy’s friend Elise told the miraculous story of how she survived the Rwandan genocide, after soldiers killed her husband and brother-in-law, and attacked her with machetes. The maggots in her wounds saved her life, as the soldiers who returned thought she must already be dead. After she remarried, the soldiers killed her second husband. Elise and her children are now safe in the U.S. (where she is a citizen!), and she praises God for always being with her.

Every single refugee I meet has a story. They have all—by definition—fled persecution. This is who our refugee resettlement program serves. I stand in solidarity with refugees.

 

 

Solidarity in Worship: Africa

Recently I’ve been worshipping in solidarity with my immigrant and refugee brothers and sisters. What began as a demonstration of my support for them has resulted in amazing worship and feeding of my own soul.

My friend Laurie Raynor and I experienced a beautiful, friendly, joy- and spirit-filled celebration worshipping with our local African congregation. The congregation is made up almost entirely of refugees, all of whom speak Swahili (plus a plethora of other languages). They come from Burundi, Congo, Rwanda, Central African Republic—places they used to call home but had to flee for their lives, places whose governments kill their own people, where civil war seems unending. They’ve all spent years, some decades, in refugee camps or in urban exile. But wow, do they know how to praise God! The choir not only sings, but also dances, leading the congregation in passionate worship of Jesus. The women’s clothing is brightly-colored and so very beautiful. Even some of the men’s clothing is wonderfully colorful. The very colors of their clothing seem to praise God.

My friend Laurie wrote this about our experience:

My mom and I attended an African church service last night, here in town. (Thank you Vicki for the invite!) They made us feel so welcome. Everyone greeted us warmly, including all the young people. No one asked why we were there. We were greeted immediately and asked to sit in the front seats. One woman, finely dressed, said that she would love to sit with us and interpret (the service was entirely in Swahili), the music was so wonderful, I don’t even have the right adjectives to describe…the women wore beautiful colorful dresses, the children ran and played and laughed, the young people, all dressed beautifully for church, even though it was late in the evening, everyone clasped our hands and greeted us with such pleasure…the pastor preached a sermon that was so animated and exciting, you couldn’t help but yell out “Praise Jesus!”, and they had a second pastor translate the entire sermon in English, I’m sure just for our benefit. He preached about Moses and his calling from God in the book of Exodus. It was a sermon I needed to hear. He reminded us not to fear humans, but to always trust God, who has a plan for each one of us. And He hears us. We just need to listen. It really spoke to me personally. When the service ended and everyone was saying their goodbyes, the pastor came to my mom and said that he would really like to pray for her personally because he could tell she was in pain. He promised that his church would pray for her daily. That means so much to me. None of the people we met last night were Kenyans. They were from Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda. And yet they were family. I felt like I was at home.

 

 

True Facts about Refugees

I’ve learned over the past months and years that most Americans—including politicians and journalists—know very little about the American immigration system. Let’s review the facts.

1. Immigrant ≠ refugee. Refugees represent a very specific legal category. Directly from UNHCR:

A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal, and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.

Again, immigrant ≠ refugee. Immigrants choose to relocate; refugees are forced from their homes. Refugees enter the US with special legal status to live and work here.

2. Refugees already face a very strict vetting process. Far and away, the refugee system is the most difficult way to enter the US. It’s exponentially easier to obtain a tourist visa or a student visa. Fewer than 1% of the world’s refugees are ever resettled to a third country. If there is any question about a refugee in the vetting process, that person is not allowed to come to the US. Before being admitted to the United States, refugees undergo multiple security background checks, medical exams, iris scans and collection of other biometric information, in a procedure that takes 18 to 24 months. The average time for a refugee to await resettlement is 17 years.

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3. Since 1980 when the U.S. began resettling refugees in earnest, there has NEVER been a case of a refugee committing an act of terrorism within the United States. San Bernardino? No, not refugees. Boston marathon? Again, no. Please be very careful. Words matter. Facts matter.

4. America is not Europe. Asylum seekers are able to walk, drive, and float into Europe with no screening. Asylum seekers have suffered the same fate as refugees, but they do not have the same legal status. Unlike Europe, America has an ocean, and a strict refugee vetting program.

5. 51% of refugees are children. The US gives priority to family reunification and resettling the most vulnerable.

6. President Obama changed the Cuban immigration policy. Yes, it’s hard on the Cubans. Why? Because it puts Cubans on the same legal footing as all other refugees from all other countries around the world. So whether you like it or not, it’s fair.

7. Research continually shows that refugees are a net gain to the economy, and that refugees are more likely to start their own business than native-born Americans.

8. The recent Executive Orders, even though they are being reviewed, do have an immediate effect on refugees. President Obama set the number of refugees to be resettled in the United States in fiscal year 2017 (Oct 16—Sep 17) at 110,000. The executive orders have reduced that number by more than half, down to 50,000, an historically low number. We have already resettled more than 40,000 refugees this year, in anticipation of reaching the higher number. I personally have friends awaiting the resettlement of family members, who will now have to wait even longer.

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9. Followers of Jesus are responsible to follow what the Bible says about welcoming strangers and foreigners. This should not be a matter of partisan politics; it’s a matter of obeying God…or not. I believe Jesus meant it when He said “Love your neighbor.” And when asked “Who is my neighbor?” the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ story was a hated, half-breed, religiously heretical foreigner.

10. There is something you can do. Get educated—there’s a list of great books here: https://stand4welcome.wordpress.com/2016/08/04/never-too-old-to-learn/

Visit your local refugee resettlement agency. They all offer volunteer trainings.

Volunteer. Get to know some refugees personally.

Donate to your local refugee resettlement agency. Their funding is being cut, and they can use the help.

Turn off the fake news; don’t fall for alternative truth. Counter mis-information and lies with truth. Jesus is the way, the TRUTH, and the life. Truth matters.

 

Author’s Note: The above are true facts I’ve learned from the following experiences: I’ve taught English to hundreds of refugees. I’ve volunteered with the local resettlement agency to mentor nine refugee families who were newly arrived in the United States. I’ve attended numerous training sessions to prepare to do both of those things. I read extensively about refugees. I’ve attended two national conferences on refugees. I’ve traveled to the Arizona/Mexico border specifically to learn about immigration, and to a jail for women and child immigrants in Texas to volunteer as a legal assistant. I’ve taken coursework on Immigration Law, and I volunteer with an immigration attorney in a family immigration legal office, pursuing BIA/OLAP/DOJ accreditation. I’m not an attorney or a refugee, but I do know a fair amount more about refugees—and KNOW more refugees personally—than does the average American, or politician, or journalist….

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I’m Reading

I love books. I read mostly non-fiction and memoirs, books based in reality, books that make me think and examine my own life and experiences while learning from others. These are a few of my best picks so far this year.

Seeking Refuge is perhaps the most important book for American Christians to read today. I highly recommend it, as an intelligent overview of the current refugee crisis and what a biblical response should look like. Written by highly-respected leaders of World Relief, a Christian refugee resettlement agency. I’ve heard Matthew Soerens speak, and look forward to hearing him again in May. Pass this book around to your pastors and missions leaders. At the link below you’ll find a 7-day companion study!
https://www.bible.com/reading-plans/2880-seeking-refuge-gods-heart-for-refugees

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Assimilate or Go Home is about a young woman’s experiences mentoring refugees; what she learned about herself, her faith, and her world. This is a book to savor and drink deeply. I’m looking forward to reading it again.

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Small Great Things is a rare fiction pick for me, but it was inspired by real events, and came recommended by a friend who has wonderful taste in books. This is a powerful and thought-provoking novel about racism in America.

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Breakfast at Sally’s is the story of a wealthy, successful businessman who lost everything and became homeless. His memoir will make you question your assumptions about the homeless.

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Honorable mentions:
Where the Wind Leads: A Refugee Family’s Miraculous Story of Loss, Rescue, and Redemption, by Dr. Vinh Chung
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J. D. Vance

I hope you enjoy reading these books and learn as much from them as I have!