Responding to the Call: The Voices of Refugees in Our Midst

by Andrea Cumbo

The word refugee used to remind me of those missionary presentations I saw on Sunday evenings in the church fellowship hall. I pictured huts with thatched roofs, people in scant clothing, and pole barn churches in the jungle. Like the people these missionaries were witnessing to, refugees seemed so foreign, so unusual that I didn't ever really engage with the idea. When I heard these presentations, the focus was always on what missionaries were doing–building churches, holding Vacation Bible Schools, "witnessing" to people–and not about bearing witness to the people themselves, their struggles, their fears.

When people did talk more personally about refugees, there were no details. Refugees lived somewhere else; their lives did not intersect with mine. I heard my parents talk about a boy they knew whose brother was a Lost Boy of Sudan; I heard stories about refugee camps when organizations like World Vision did special pleas for donations; I heard NPR talk about refugees in the Congo. The stories reached my ears but not my heart.

Then I met Cheryl Hamilton. Unlike the missionaries that crossed the threshold of my childhood church, Cheryl was a woman I sat down to talk to over pizza at a local shop when she came to present her one-woman play Checkered Floors (http://checkeredfloors.com/) at the college where I was teaching. Her production tied together her personal story of rape with her experiences as a refugee consultant in a small town in Maine by paralleling her trauma with the trauma that Somali refugees faced as they fled their home country and as they settled in the United States, and something about this telling of the story–maybe because I'm sadly much more cognizant of sexual assault than I am refugee crises–made this story live for me.

I could picture Fatima, the woman Cheryl focuses on in the play, sitting in her apartment alone, trying to plug her ears against the screams she heard outside. I could see the young woman at the check out line in Wal-Mart handing the clerk a blank check because she didn't know how to fill it out. I could see the newsprint that bore the wretchedness of a mayor who would ask these people, these people fleeing for their very lives, to not come to their town because they had enough Somalis for one small place. Refugees become people, people with names and faces, people in pain.

Shortly after seeing Cheryl's play, I read Dave Egger's What is the What, (http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780307385901) the autobiography of Valentino Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Valentino's story crushed my heart. How was it that someone, a young boy even, could walk thousands of miles, could live in the barest of houses, could see the death of hundreds of people and still speak with hope? How was it that this man could come to my country and face so many obstacles to his success? How was it that he could not get an education or even find a job that paid his bills, despite his willingness to work all of his waking hours?

Next, I picked up Tracy Kidder's book Strength in What Remains (http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9781400066216) and read about how Deo, a young medical student from Burundi, came to live in a squatter's apartment in Harlem, how he was abused by an employer who paid him pennies to deliver groceries, how he came, eventually, to return to Burundi to build medical clinics in the land where he watched people slaughtered because of some aggrandized version of ethnicity. (The genocide in Burundi was the less-publicized side of the Tutsi-Hutu battles of Rwanda.) How could these people survive such horror? How could they even thrive from it? How could I not have known about these things?

Now I hear about refugees, asylum-seekers, and stateless people every day. A student mentions the film God Has Grown Tired of Us, (http://www.godgrewtiredofus.com/) and I am reminded of the scene where the young men do not know what a freezer is. A church I am visiting discusses the asylum-seeker who is helping remodel the youth room in their building. A young woman tells me of a project her mother is doing with refugees from Burma. These people are in our lives, only two degrees away from me, and yet, I know so little still.

As a person commanded to "provide the poor wanderer with shelter" (Isaiah 58:7) and "defend the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and love the alien" (Deut 11:17), my ignorance is inexcusable. God has called me to care for those who have suffered, for those who have no clothing or food or water, for those who have no shelter. We so often quote Jesus' words when he said, "I was a stranger and you invited me in" (Matthew 25:35), and yet we have so many strangers–so many refugees–in our midst whom we have never invited in. They have not often been invited into our churches, into our homes, or even into our lives.

According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, there are almost 35 million "people of concern" in the world today. Of those 35 million, just over 10.5 million are characterized as refugees or "people in refugee-like situations", people who have been forced to flee their home countries because of persecution; another 15.5 million are internally-displaced people, people who have been forced out of their homes but still live within the boundaries of their home countries; and another over 6.5 million "stateless people," people who have no legal country of residence because of ethnic prejudice, failure of states to recognize certain populations, etc. Of these over 35 million people, approximately 350,000 reside in the United States (as of June 2009).  I have never met a refugee, but then, I have never tried. I am ashamed of this fact.

When I asked Cheryl Hamilton why people should care about refugees, she said, "Beyond the obvious international rights to food and shelter and such, people should care about refugees because no person in the world deserves to live in perpetual fear. It is inhuman. I appreciate how daunting the international refugee crisis feels. From a small town in the US, it's easy to think there is nothing we can do. I also appreciate how poverty and other challenges exist in our backyards; however, our greatest social ills do not compare to genocide or civil war. More often than not, when a person shares their refugee story with me, I am equally humbled and inspired by their determination and courage. I also often wonder whether I would be as strong."

I have wondered much the same thing. When Valentino Deng relays the story of sitting in the roadside, after walking for days, and wishing he would die, I cannot imagine how real that wish must have been for him. When Tracy Kidder tells about how he and Deo returned to Burundi to visit a memorial where the rooms were stacked high with the bones of the murdered, I have trouble even imagining the picture much less calling forth any small portion of the emotion Deo must have felt to return to the site of this massacre. When I read of how Burmese women living as refugees in Malaysia cannot even safely leave the house to work and are, thus, entirely dependent on others for their safety and livelihood, I am at a total loss to consider what it might feel like to not be able to walk out my front door and go to work. I simply cannot fathom this level of pain.

Yet, I am not asked to live it, by the grace of God; I am, however, asked to respond to this pain. There is much I am called to do. As the prophet Isaiah says, "Hide the fugitives, do not betray the refugees. Let the Moabite fugitives stay with you; be their shelter from the destroyer." I am asked to care for the refugees, to take them into my country, into my church, into my home.

But what can I do? I cannot bring peace to the still-warring Hutus and Tutsis; I cannot overthrow the Sudanese government and stop their support of genocidal militias; I cannot propose a simple solution to bring Palestinian refugees back to their homes. I simply cannot solve these problems, but I know that my God can. So I pray for these solutions.

Meanwhile, I do more practical things. Hamilton suggests that I can help refugee families build networks in their new communities by helping them "connect to as many people as possible." She continues, "I cannot emphasize enough the value of sharing your connections in the community. Think about it. Those of us who were born in the country have acquired years of personal and professional connections that benefit us when we are looking for work, need to a find a doctor, add a referral to an application, or purchase a vehicle for example. Networking is how Americans advance."  She also contends that we can provide more English classes for language learners. The language barrier can often be the biggest hurdle to acclimatization for refugees and other people new to our country.

We can also all become more informed. Agencies like the Exodus World Services (http://www.e-w-s.org) provide great resources on how Christians can and should help refugees here in the US They provide in-church presentations on refugee issues and can train volunteers to work with refugee populations. The UNHCR website (http://www.unhcr.org) provides a concise and clear statistics on refugee crises around the world, and the Women's Refugee Commission (http://womensrefugeecommission.org/) gives particular information about how refugee situations affect women especially. When I started to look into this topic, I found more resources than I could ever imagine. I started seeing refugees and people who work with refugees everywhere. Just around the corner from my house in Baltimore, there is the Resettlement Center, an arm of the International Rescue Committee (http://www.theirc.org/) that operates a thrift store specifically for refugees and provides mentoring and tutoring services for refugees. I have taken it on myself to become involved by educating myself and by volunteering. I am trying, with my words and with my actions, to bear witness to the stories of these people, to not act like their words are entertainment or stories only for Sunday evening slideshows but the stories told to brothers and sisters around a fire where we sit, listen, and cry over the pain of our family.

Refugee work is not something only done in the camps and villages of my childhood imagination; this is the work of God's people here and now in our own country, in our own churches, in our own homes.  This is the work of which Jesus speaks when he says, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." This is God's calling for me, and for you.

(Recommended reading: "Coming to America" by Duane Binkley for PRISM Magazine–Fleeing military persecution and refugee camps, the Karen seek new lives in the US.)

For more information on refugee crises worldwide and how you can get involved, please visit the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (http://www.unhcr.org), (Exodus World Services) http://www.e-w-s.org, or (Enabling Christians in Serving Refugees). http://www.ecsr.org.uk

 

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