Refugees hold a special place in my heart, because often it’s the poorest of the poor who end up in refugee camps. Those who have the money or means to escape conflict or persecution any other way, do so. It’s the mothers and children who end up in the camps, and really – the camps aren’t much better than whatever they escaped from.
My first experience with refugees was in Nairobi. We were there to drop off our kids for school. There was a huge refugee crisis in Kenya at the time because of a famine in Ethiopia. There was lots of talk of the conditions in Dadaab Refugee Camp. TWR Kenya had this solar cooker project and we arranged to meet with one of the guys trying to figure out how to distribute them. He came in and told us about life in Dadaab and about how he was looking for a bicycle because that would make his work so much easier. My kids were listening the whole time. They took their own allowances and bought this man a bicycle.
One of our partners in France sent these pictures to us from a current refugee camp.
When you hear about life in the camps, you are compelled to act!
When we lived in Swaziland, there was a refugee camp near the border with Mozambique. It had originally been built by the UN to house refugees from the Mozambique civil war, but that war had ended and most of them had returned home. The camp later came to house refugees from the Burundi and Rwandan genocides.
If you look at a map of Africa, Swaziland is a good hike from Burundi and Rwanda, but the prejudices that led to the Rwandan genocide simply moved into the refugee camps in Kenya. We spoke with one couple who said they had fled Rwanda and the genocide with basically the clothes on their backs, but found themselves caught up in the conflict all over again in the Kenyan refugee camps – so they flew to Swaziland.
In Rwanda, this couple had been a lawyer and high school teacher respectively, so definitely middle class. These were educated people, but we met them in the UN camp in Swaziland with their kids and they had nothing. Just goes to show that it’s not only the poor and uneducated in refugee camps, but they are the most vulnerable.
I will never forget what I saw in this camp. Sandy and I went in to lead Sunday services. Sandy would bring her guitar and we’d sit and talk to people afterwards. To me, this refugee camp was like a prison because it was fenced and gated. No one got in or out without going through that gate.
Sandy remembers that we met in the church building, which was the school the rest of the week, but it was a cement block building with no windows. It showed no evidence of being a school – no books, no papers, no chairs. There were just a couple of benches. She remembers this group of girls wanted to sing for us, so they stood at the front in their rags and sang with pure joy about Jesus. They all had huge smiles on their faces.
When people have nothing, and have no hope for ever having anything on this earth, then their only hope is Christ and their only hope is that things will be better in heaven, and they find great joy in that. This hit Sandy like a ton of bricks. She says whenever she thinks about how hard things seem in Canada, remembering those kids puts everything in perspective.
Too many people were crammed into small spaces, everywhere. It was a UNHDR camp, and Sandy remembers thinking the UN would provide everything they needed, but there were no lavatories or running water or food even, not that we saw. The only way these people could survive was if they had outside help.
Every time Sandy and I went in, we brought a 50lb bag of rice. Which seems like a lot, but in the camps often everyone shares what little they have so it never went very far. And people lived in that camp for years.
We don’t have a reference point for how difficult it is for refugees.
I met these two in the refugee camp in Angola. The mother was just 14 years old.
I visited a refugee camp in Angola during the civil war there. The camp was for internally displaced people or internal refugees (IDPs). Again, the place reminded me of a prison. People lived there for years – some for the full duration of the civil war (25+years). It becomes their whole life.
In Luanda, there’s a huge slum and it was visiting this slum that compelled me to start Project Hannah in Angola (read that story here) – but if you can imagine it the refugee camps are worse. People in slums are able to work, even if the wages are horrible, where refugees are entirely dependent on outside help.
I spoke with a refugee from Syria who said that Christians, if they are able, completely avoid the refugee camps in Turkey, Greece, Lebanon and Europe because the religious persecution in those places is as bad as it was at home. Same thing we saw in the refugee camps in Kenya with the Rwandan genocide. People flee the conflict and take their prejudices with them.
You can’t understand how difficult it is for a refugee unless you’ve lived it or seen it. It’s so easy for us to say we don’t understand, and once you do — you want to help.
Through the years, we’ve always had a burden for refugees because even if we can’t give them hope for a better life on earth – they might die in these places and they’re there through no fault of their own – but we can give them eternal hope.