Bantu refugee children from refugee camps in Kenya in St. Petersburg, Florida; at a farewell party before being relocated to other places in the US. (Photo credit: Melvin Baker)

My Refugee Experience

By the Rev. Steven D. Martin

The phone rang on a day when I was in a particularly hospitable mood. People who know me well might say that those days are not as plentiful as they should be.

I generally don’t take kindly to phone calls that interrupt my concentration with a sales pitch, but this day was different. The caller was from a small non-profit in Knoxville, Tennessee that works to provide sponsors for refugees in need of resettlement in the United States. She asked if the church I served as pastor would be willing to receive a packet of information about ways congregations can minister to refugees. A simple enough request, right? I responded, “Sure!”

Some small moments can set life on an entirely new course. That was one of those moments.

A week later, a second call came. A family that had been in refugee camps in Bosnia for several years was coming to the US and they needed a home. Would our church be willing to receive them and help resettle them in our community?

In the two weeks that followed, I became familiar with a variety of agencies including Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Catholic Charities, the UN High Commission on Refugees, and the International Organization for Migration. I was learning a few words and phrases in Bosnian (and butchering them, as I would later discover). The church was making repairs to a house it owned in the neighborhood. And everyone was preparing to joyfully welcome strangers into their tiny community.

Just three weeks after that first phone call, we were standing at the airport welcoming a mother and her two children. The mother’s face was carved with the worry and stress of the years she had spent protecting her family. Her nineteen-year-old son was strong and unusually wise for his age. Her daughter was about to turn sixteen. They carried everything they owned in two suitcases.

Over the weeks and months that followed, I watched a church become transformed through the hospitality they extended to a family whose pain was so deep that few details of their situation emerged. The church members furnished a house for them, and helped them find jobs and them get settled. It was a community effort.

All this happened in the 1990s. It was before 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the most recent political campaign. It was at a time when there was little or no suspicion around refugees and their intentions. The idea of welcoming refugees was not a political football. Thank God it wasn’t.

A few years ago, through the magic of social media, I was able to reconnect with the family we sponsored. They now live in another city. Their two suitcases of worldly possessions had turned into three houses, two dogs, and several children, all of which they worked hard for. The mother’s heavy gaze had turned to a bright and hopeful smile. The older son had raised a family. The youngest daughter had finished medical school and is now a practicing endocrinologist with a husband and two beautiful children.

Perhaps the biggest change came in me. The experience made me care. It connected me to the suffering of war. It gave me an experience through which I learned, once again, that people are good and we have nothing to fear when we welcome the stranger. In fact, welcoming the sojourner makes us better people. Perhaps that’s why it’s so central to the scriptures.

I’m thinking about this experience today because our government is placing strict limits on the kind of people who can come to this country. It’s as if refugees are a terrible burden to bear rather than an opportunity for growth, service and love.

Our lives are most often changed through the people we meet. It would be a terrible loss if we never had an opportunity to know people different from ourselves. I can attest that the family we sponsored made me, and everyone else who encountered them, richer.