Important lessons from a refugee story

By the Rev. Corey Fields

They had just landed in the United States. They had little with them beyond the clothes on their backs and the shoes on their feet. The father, Peter*; mother, Anne; and young daughter, Vanessa, entered the office of the refugee resettlement agency and started to unpack. They thought this space, with few places to sit, was where they’d be staying.

“No, wait,” the program director said. “We have an apartment ready; you get your own place.”

They probably couldn’t process this information. Their English was limited, and the office was far from anywhere they had rested their heads. They had been waiting years for this moment.

Peter is from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Anne grew up in a rural village of the Central African Republic. When Anne was young, her father left, and she had to help support the family instead of attending school. Anne can speak a few languages but can’t read any of them. She has always wanted an education.

Soon after Peter and Anne got together, a violent rebel militia faction known as Séléka began to terrorize parts of the Central African Republic, including their village. Anne has looked down the barrel of a gun. Peter has a large scar on the back of his head, where they cut him so badly that he almost died. In fact, he regained consciousness in a place where dead bodies were being collected. They thought he was dead, too.

Peter and Anne fled for their lives. They each have children from other partners — Anne with a man who had left some time ago. They fled not knowing the whereabouts of those children.

They came to live in a camp in Ghana, where Vanessa was born. When they began the long and confusing process of applying to be refugees, they, like other refugees assigned to come to the United States, were vetted by both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (the UN Refugee Agency) and the United States, where nine government agencies are involved. They were interviewed, received health screenings, and submitted to reference checks to ensure they are not combatants.

Some sources say the refugee vetting process can take 18–24 months. For them, it was roughly five years. At long last, they were able to come to the United States as refugees. Some anti-refugee Americans don’t realize that this status is legal and documented.

When they walked into the apartment for the first time, Anne was overcome with emotion.

“I have suffered for so long!” she exclaimed.

Thus, began a long and strenuous process of completing their legal paperwork, finding employment, orienting to life in the United States, and learning how to do things that you and I take for granted.

The first time I had an extended visit with them in their home, they were anxious to tell me their story. They speak Sango to each other as their primary spoken language. They both know more French than English. Although my French is rusty, I tried to say a few things in French.

“Pastor, please speak English,” they said. “We must learn English.”

It was then that I learned about their other children, whereabouts unknown. A couple of weeks later, Anne received a Facebook photo of her two other daughters, now young teenagers. She was again overcome with emotion upon seeing their faces and learning that they were at least alive. Peter still does not know the fate of his other children.

Even so, they speak often of how God has blessed and protected them. They know what it’s like to have nothing but God.

My congregation has “adopted” this family, in partnership with the resettlement program, which is also faith-based. They have been baptized, joined our fellowship, and have been working with a tireless team of volunteers who have done everything from show them how to use the bus system to helping them enroll Vanessa in preschool. We have depended on the agency to handle such matters as legal documents and employment. Both Peter and Anne are eager to work and learn the culture. Vanessa is a joyful, outgoing person who has run without hesitation into the arms of her new friends at both preschool and church.

I am blessed to serve a congregation that, during its 70-year history, has worked with refugees from all over the world. This family is the sixth. I am also blessed to be an ordained minister within American Baptist Churches USA, which stands for human rights and the plight of refugees as an integral part of fulfilling the divine law for love of neighbor.

I tell this story to urge other Christians and Americans not only to advocate for refugees but also to understand the tremendous value that refugees add to our society, as people who are vetted, honest, hard-working and eager to learn. In my short time working with this family, I have been humbled and inspired by several aspects:

  • They have experienced trauma to which few of us can relate. As Anne put it, they have suffered so much. They did not choose this life, but they accept with open hearts every opportunity given to them because they know what persecution and fear for one’s life feels like. Their home country represents one of several beset by violence to which the U.S. media doesn’t pay attention. Refugees — people who are of all religions and cultures — are the true victims.
  • They are motivated and have a better work ethic than some native-born Americans. I have watched this family show a curiosity and determination toward contributing to this country that is hard to rival. If many native-born Americans could reciprocate even a fraction of their interest in our culture, we would be much better off.
  • Despite their determination and willingness, it is not enough. They need a team of personal advocates and far more resources than our government provides them. When refugees arrive, they don’t yet even have bootstraps by which to pull themselves up. Everything is so new and so strange. They are expected to be self-sustaining in three months’ time on a financial allocation that is insufficient. It takes a “village” — a team of advocates whose love and knowledge combine to show them the way. Refugees face all the challenges of other immigrants and then some, including suspicion, frustration from others because of the language barrier, and people who try to trick them.

World Refugee Day is June 20. Many other refugees are waiting, some of whom won’t be as lucky as this family. They need our voice and our vote. I pray that we renew our commitment to the God who has called us to “speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute” (Prov. 31:8). By serving the “least of these” (Matt. 25:40), we serve Christ himself.

Jerrod Hugenot, associate executive minister of American Baptist Churches of New York State, asked, “Is the church willing to risk itself for those who are scared and shunned? Are we willing to offer something other than platitude and quiet support when the world’s violence escalates?”

May our answer be a resounding “yes.”

The Rev. Corey Fields is senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Newark, Del.

Names have been changed to protect privacy.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.