Strengthening Our Hand – The North American Refugee Experience
For many of us living in the western world, the idea of being forced to flee our homes is unthinkable.
Yet recently, in just the first weeks of hostilities in Ukraine, millions of people were forced to do the unthinkable. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of displaced persons has risen worldwide to over 82 million people. More than any time in the past, “persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations and events seriously disturbing public order,” have brought people to the desperate decision to leave their homes.1www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html The result is chaos.
we must strengthen the hand of those in need
Brothers and sisters are among those forced into the chaos. To comprehend the global toll, it is important to consider the individual’s social, economic and psychological costs. We need to think about the displaced believer. For example, how much do we understand the experience of Christadelphian refugees who have spent years in overcrowded refugee camps? What is it like to be resettled in a foreign country? For our response to be faithful, it must be informed by the expectations of the Scriptures and from lessons we’ve learned from the past.
The Scriptural injunction is clear; it is to strengthen the hand of those in need. Christ directed the attention of his followers to the days of Sodom as a warning against mindless self-indulgence at the time of his return. (Luke 17:28-29). Sodom is described in Ezekiel 16:49 as being condemned for not strengthening “the hand of the poor and needy.”
The uncaring attitude in Sodom stemmed from the same societal conditions evident today: a great deal of pride, a shocking excess of food, and an obscene amount of personal idleness. With affluence has come, in some quarters, a disregard for poor and needy people. But Deuteronomy 10:17-18 says, “Yahweh your God… loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.” God’s expression of love for the stranger, foreigner and alien, serves to powerfully guide our attitude toward the care for those in society around us who are displaced. Just as Israel’s experience in Egypt as strangers heightened their sensitivity, the recollection of our past as “strangers, having no hope” (Eph 2:12,19) must propel us to empathetic action.
The support of refugee brothers and sisters goes beyond being a worthy endeavor. It is a responsibility. If our obligation to the stranger is love, what do we owe to those of the household of faith? (Gal 6:10). The Apostle Paul reasoned that neglecting family is “worse than an infidel.” An infidel deliberately rejects the faith (1 Tim 5:8). Taking care of our spiritual family, like providing for our natural family, is a matter of living the faith.
To the credit of our community, and thanks to the power of God’s word, ecclesias worldwide have mobilized in an expression of faithfulness to care for our spiritual family. In the United Kingdom, ecclesias have been rejuvenated by the arrival of many asylum seekers. Some came as Muslims, others as former Muslims. They came seeking asylum but also seeking salvation by learning about the coming Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.2www.ukppn.info
Their quest galvanized an enthusiastic response by many brothers and sisters. Even the small ecclesial family in Germany came together during the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe to help Christadelphians on the run. What have we learned over the last decade in North America that can shape our thinking?
The Story of Displacement and Resettlement to North America
The largest number of Christadelphians to be resettled in North America is from East-Central Africa. This is thanks to the tireless efforts over many years of the Christadelphian Bible Mission-UK in responding to the needs of people during conflict in that region. Bible classes were set up in camps all over the region to give people the hope of the gospel. Many heard and were baptized into Christ.
To help us understand the experience of Christadelphian newcomers to North America, I will tell the story of displacement and resettlement through the experiences of a fictional individual I will call Sister Kesi. The story is a composite of real experiences.
In 1994, due to spillover from the Rwandan genocide, conflict erupted in Kesi’s village in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She was among the region’s 6.6 million violently displaced from their homes.3www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/08/09/record-number-of-forcibly-displaced-people-lived-in-sub-saharan-africa-in-2017 Thrust into the chaos at the age of ten, she was tragically separated from her family. It was over a year before she was found by a former neighbor in a makeshift refugee camp in a distant country. She was returned to her family, but it did not take much effort to grasp the physical and psychological consequences of her early childhood experience.
By 2003 Kesi had married, but with the death toll in Congo reaching three million, life in the village was not the same. Government instability, rampant corruption and extreme poverty meant ongoing violence. Her husband often left to find work. One time, when he was away, armed men from distant regions entered her village.
This time, she was the mother of small children. Once again, as when she was ten years old, she was alone and unprotected. With a baby strapped to her back and little ones by her side, she crossed Lake Tanganyika in a small, overcrowded vessel. At a camp in Burundi, she prayed for help, and after searching, she found a new family. There was a Bible class in the camp, run by the Christadelphian Bible Mission, and in time she was baptized into Christ. Hope for the future flooded into her life.
Alone in America
Due to the chaos of an upended life, Kesi was never reunited with her husband. She arrived in North America with her children, and her Swahili Bible marked “CBM” on the side. Under the care of the International Rescue Committee, she and her children were resettled in the south-eastern USA.4The efforts of the UK CBM in the refugee camps of Tanzania, Burundi and Zimbabwe and with ecclesias the afflicted parts of the DRC were hugely effective in answering the spiritual needs of the displaced people. There was very little reported about the conflict in the media, probably because the region ranks “low” on US interest impact. Unaware of immigration patterns to North American, ecclesias began to receive African brethren and their families without knowing the circumstances that brought them.
There was very little reported about the conflict in the media, probably because the region ranks “low” on US interest impact. Unaware of immigration patterns to North American, ecclesias began to receive African brethren and their families without knowing the circumstances that brought them.The sad reality is there are no brothers and sisters nearby to help Kesi and her family with the spiritual challenges of resettlement.
Added to the disappointment of being isolated, she arrived just as the world was plunged into the Covid 19 pandemic. This led to further social isolation. Pandemic restrictions have meant no school for her children, no chance to learn English, and after a year, no resettlement agency support, no way to earn a wage, and therefore, no way to pay the rent. She is alone, and once again, unprotected and afraid.
North American society can be socially isolating, especially compared to the open villages of Africa and the communal closeness of the refugee camps. Her older children, who grew up in the camp, have recently found YouTube videos about life back in the camp. Now they want to return. As irrational as this longing is, it is an honest expression of the relationships they miss.
Kesi is one of many, perhaps hundreds, of Christadelphian refugees who have been resettled into isolation.
Ideas for Strengthening the Hand
Ideas for strengthening the hand of those in need will include supporting resettled families and providing support for the nearby ecclesias since they may feel ill-equipped, especially if there are language barriers. Additionally, special attention will need to be given to the families who have settled away from a Christadelphian ecclesia.
The Williamsburg Christadelphian Foundation (WCF) has a program for Newcomers that specifically addresses these issues of resettlement and isolation.5For one year, newly arrived brothers and sisters are under the care of a resettlement agency such as the International Rescue Committee or Catholic Charities. Caseworkers oversee their needs for housing and start them on the employment path.
Here is a list of cities, states and provinces the Newcomers Program has compiled to identify where some of our isolated brothers and sisters are currently located:
- Buffalo, NY
- Erie, PA
- Charlotte, NC
- Granby, QC
- Jacksonville, FL
- Louisville, KY
- Quebec City, QC
- Salt Lake City, UT
- Windsor, ON
As soon as the pandemic brought to light the benefits of video conferencing, a Breaking of Bread was started on Zoom to bring a dispersed group of Swahili speaking families together around the LORD’S table. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Bro. Benoit Mukendi, fellowship around the word of God is renewed each first day of the week. Bro. Benoit, as the link-brother for the CBM East Africa, has his finger on the pulse of events in Africa, as well as in North America. Currently, ideas to expand, promote and support this effort are being explored.
Families from East-Central Africa often arrive with lots of children. Like God-fearing parents everywhere, these parents ask, how will our children make meaningful friendships in the truth? Long-established families in North America have benefitted for generations from attending Bible Schools together. It is time for newly arrived families to hear about such spiritual mainstays so that they can benefit too.
The Newcomers Program wants to make sure the families from Africa with lots of kids know about and can attend spiritually enriching events. This happened recently. A group of young people attended the first major Christadelphian youth event to open after pandemic restrictions had been lifted. Friendships in the Truth formed during the early years of belief help establish a lifetime of support.
Language barriers are, without doubt, one of the most serious impediments to sharing the Word. Small meetings, lacking the resources to help newly arrived families, can easily be overwhelmed. Here is a key to overcoming the language barrier. Ecclesias can have a special class available Sunday by Sunday for the newly arrived adults. Lessons may begin with hand signals and stick figures, but over time, a lot of goodwill and mutual respect can grow.
In the Baltimore meeting, we used first principle lessons, provided in English and Swahili, from the CBM-Tanzania.6More information about the WCF Newcomers Program can be found at www.wcfoundation.org/newcomers-program. As often happens, benefits flow to both student and teacher. The student feels important and cared for, while the challenge enriches the teacher. Scripture teaches that the outcome is always for our good when we express our reverence for Yahweh by doing the right thing, especially when it’s hard to do (Deut 6:24). The good results are for both teacher and learner
Sadly, many who have arrived in North America with CBM Bibles in hand have disappeared. But it is also true that many have persevered in their commitment to God and the hope of His coming Kingdom despite the adversities. One of the challenges now for North American ecclesias is seeking out and providing for those living in isolation. Since refugee families are often large, supporting the parents by providing for the spiritual needs of their children is hugely important for their future.
Remember, You Were Once Strangers
Being “a stranger” is unsettling. Nothing is familiar. Life in North America for African refugees can even be threatening. Despair can set in. The solution from God’s word is the love and care of family. With all the genuine affection that goes with it, family is needed. This is what we have to offer our displaced brethren, and this is our responsibility.
It is our duty to strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. The brothers and sisters in our midst who have been displaced from their homes because of war and persecution are a top priority from the point of view of the Almighty. “Do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” (Heb 13:16). When we first meet our family from afar, the only thing that will matter at that moment is our shared relationship in Christ.
It is our duty to strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.
When a sister such as Kesi, who has experienced extreme trauma and uncertainty, arrives at the door of your ecclesial hall, chances are she will not be able to describe what she has been through. Without a shared language and shared experiences, it could be a long time before you know her story. Perhaps you will never know. The one thing that will matter at that moment of meeting is your shared relationship with Christ. Despite the outward appearances that suggest otherwise, you are bound together into the one body by love. (Col 3:12-15).
(Baltimore Ecclesia, MD)