In 2017 about twenty Hillside Members met together to create a refugee relocation support team in partnership with Bethany Christian Services. My commitment was due more to my support of Bethany than to my knowledge of, or commitment to, refugee support.
While waiting to be assigned a family, I read Seeking Refuge by Bauman, Soerens, and Smeir. And there my education began. An estimated sixty million people world wide have been forcibly displaced from their homes, more than at any time in recorded history. While many remain within the borders of their country, about twenty million have been forced by persecution to seek refuge in a neighboring land. More than half of them are children. The average amount of time from when a refugee first flees their country until they are finally settled in a permanent setting is seventeen years! At least 39% experience PTSD, compared to just 1% of the general population. How do you wrap your brain, much less your heart, around such facts?
For me, two things happened. First, I attended a talk by Stephen Bauman, former President of World Relief and co-author of Seeking Refuge, at Baker Book House. After the discussion I talked to a woman who had identified herself as having arrived eight years ago from the same Rwandan camp that our family was coming from. Though she successfully relocated, graduated from Calvin, and now works for Bethany, she spoke of the struggles of relocation. I asked her if she could share any information about the camps that would help me to understand and assist us in our work. Tears began to run down her face. Haltingly, taking deep breaths, she said that she did not think she could explain years of such little hope. She could only offer me one detail. “For one thing, you never, ever, have enough food to eat.” She attributes her success to God and to her church family at Kentwood Community Church.
The second was meeting “our family.” Facts became flesh. Mom, Congolese, spent twenty years in a Rwandan refugee camp where five of her six children, now ranging in age from 7-23, were born. Despite mom’s health issues from Parkinson’s, the language barrier, and still awaiting the arrival of her husband and one daughter remaining in Rwanda, their home is filled with love and laughter. Though our experiences are polar opposites, we have much in common. We value many of the same things: family, education, hard work, respect, and faith in God. We want the best for our children.
I marvel at this family’s resiliency. Adjusting to a new culture, learning a new language, and dealing with seemingly endless forms and paperwork in a foreign language, are all taxing. Everyday appliances such as washing machines, crock pots, microwaves, ovens, air conditioners, along with thermostats and breakers are all foreign and things to be learned. Assimilation of new information is made more difficult when on overload, so repetition is necessary. Jackson, now twenty, said, “People in the camp think it will be easy when they get here, but it is very hard.” And still they smile.
However, they are not the only ones learning. From working with them, I am learning a new appreciation for our country and its many freedoms. I am learning how easy it is to take the expectation of security and a sense of justice for granted. I am learning that in the face of great injustice in this world and the overwhelming feeling that there is little I can do about it, there are steps I can take. I am learning that partnering with Bethany allows them to make a very big difference in the lives of many. I am thankful for the role they play in extending hospitality to the world’s forgotten and am thankful for their invitation to join with them in their work. It is nothing short of amazing.
I am learning—or trying to learn—the art of helping without hurting. Codependency is limiting; independence is the goal of our support. For me, the lines of just enough help and too much help are often blurred. What began as a task-oriented commitment has become a warm friendship. I worry that the children are not yet competent to advocate for mom’s health and medical care. There are many moving pieces: occupational therapy, physical therapy, and neurology appointments to name a few. So I struggle.
I am learning about God’s sovereignty. The common analogy of threads being woven together into a beautiful tapestry fits this situation. Our disparate lives could never have come together…“but God”
has woven them together. He alone could have put our support team, many of whom did not know each other, together. Educators, nurses, businessmen, an occupational therapist, physical therapist, several families with experience supporting refugees, and immigrants themselves who remember the difficulty assimilating into a new country all have used their gifts in support of this family.
I am learning, too, about the Hillside family. They are generous with their resources, their time, and their energy. They are a family willing to meet the needs of others. Examples include driving lessons, tutoring, English support, money to assist in the travel loan repayment, help with mail and forms, swimming lessons, mentoring, and summer camp for the three youngest girls.
Seeking Refuge ends with a prayer. “May the church shine its light through the refugee crisis. We pray God’s people would rise up as never before to welcome strangers, each doing what God has called all of us to do: to bind up the brokenhearted, to love our neighbors, to do justice, to love mercy, to pray without ceasing, to practice hospitality, and to proclaim the love of Christ in word and deed. Soli Deo Gloria.”
When you feel the Holy Spirit’s nudging, in whatever situation, step out in faith and obedience. You will be blessed.
by Carolyn Douma