Last summer, I had the opportunity to travel with In Touch to Tanzania. Our team spent three days in the Nyarugusu Refugee camp—three days filled with moments that moved and shaped me. We distributed Messenger (solar-powered audio devices) to one of our partners, Fred Otieno, who was using them to equip church leaders to facilitate trauma healing groups in their communities. During the seminar, I met many women who had lost children and I met many children who had never known life outside the camp. In my interviews, I heard horrific details of the experiences they’ve endured—many of which I cannot even bear to repeat.
But the most impactful encounter I had was meeting a young woman named Jacqueline, whose family fled to the camp from the Congo when she was just four years old. I was honored to be invited into her home and see, through a small window, what life was like in her world. Have you ever met a complete stranger—only to find that your heart just loves them, right there on the spot, and you know that it always will? Then you probably understand how I feel about my new friend across the Atlantic ocean. Below, I have included two excerpts from the article I wrote on Fred and his ministry and my personal reflection on Jacqueline.
Let my People Cry
Afternoon sun streams in through the open windows, past a handful of curious children peering outside. Fred paces quietly while his students are hunched over their tables, writing—35 men and women in brightly printed tunics and head wraps, and sandals touched by red dust. Around them, the bare concrete walls of the church rise high beneath a metal roof supported by thin wooden branches. For one long hour, the room is silent but for the sound of pens on paper. Some students seem to form their words slowly and deliberately, while others write with a focused intensity. These refugee church leaders are writing a lament to God—an honest account of their grief and anger over traumas they have faced.
The Nyarugusu Refugee Camp is home to more than 150,000 refugees who were displaced by bloody wars in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And although they’re provided food and water, they are left suffering from deep wounds no medicine can treat. Many have seen family and friends cut down by machetes or shot before their eyes. They are haunted by images of the homes they fled and loved ones they left behind. Even here, many continue to face incidents of violence or sexual assault—along with a daily struggle for sufficient resources. “These are very, very traumatized people,” Fred says.
But when Fred first came to the camp, he discovered that believers, even pastors, were showing up to Sunday’s service concealing their pain behind a facade. Fred’s vision is to equip and commission ministry leaders to facilitate healing groups in their own churches and villages—but before they can help others, they must first be cured themselves.
Loving God is Loving your Neighbor
Jacqueline has applied to go to the United States five times. “I pray God to give me this chance,” she told me, her tone sad and confused, “But the chance is not coming for me.” I recalled all I’d been able to do and see before the age of 24. Staying in one place for all those years, unable to leave, was impossible for me to imagine. But at least she doesn’t know any better. I regretted the thought as soon as it crossed my mind. I realize now I was comforting myself about her situation—I wanted to believe she did not feel as much pain or angst as I would if our fates were reversed.
Today’s technology makes it difficult to ignore the hardships faced by so many in our nation and around the world. But there are still many ways to keep our distance. The first is to avoid them altogether—but more often we are tempted to tell ourselves a story that lessens others’ struggles. I feel this tension even now. I could make Jacqueline’s situation seem not all that bad really; almost beautiful in its own way. Or I could make her out to be some kind of superhero, braving a life you or I could never survive.
Yet in each of these narratives, I am putting distance between you and her. In the first, I am downplaying the reality of her struggle and in the second, her humanity. Even labeling her a “refugee” feels too statistical and impersonal. Whenever we try to understand someone from afar, we will always cross over to the other side of their pain and pass them by. But in doing so, we sacrifice a bit of their humanity—which is the image of God—and a bit of ours as well.