Friday, March 20, 2015

A #ShareTheJourney Reflection

My head is full of information and statistics, my heart is full of stories and faces, and my spirit is pondering the place in the world of Sub-sahara Africa that is such a paradox of joy and pain. The news is full of the dangers of violence and war and corruption in Africa, but no one really gets a chance to meet the people, to see under the umbrella of generalizations and hear the stories of individuals who live and work and eat and pray in this complicated land.

It is overwhelming to look out over the beautiful mountains of Rwanda on a sun drenched morning with a cup of coffee enjoying the gentle breeze, a virtual paradise, and recall the reality for people living in the Gihembe Refugee Camp and the brutality of the Rwandan genocide. Amidst all the beauty of the land there are people who are still traumatized by massacres, rape, and suicide. Every day they could inadvertently walk by their perpetrator.

While listening to stories about life in a refugee camp and the horrendous aftermath of the 100 days of genocide, we were also hearing in the news about the flight of refugees from Somalia and Syria, the latter being hailed as the greatest humanitarian disaster in the history of the world. I'm numb. I can't help but ask the unanswerable question, "Why?"

I realize that the mere ability to reflect on suffering is, in large part, a luxury. Yes, suffering is part of the human condition, an essential part of our experience, but the stories I listened to in Kenya and Rwanda are beyond anything I can accept as essential. What does one do with this experience of #ShareTheJourney now that we are back in the USA? Being an oldest child, I, of course, feel responsible to paint the picture of what I've seen, give voice to what I have heard, correct the media accounts, defend the orphan and widow, and advocate for refugees. How does one do that when the world has chronic compassion fatigue and Westerners are tired of hearing how selfish and greedy they are, and I have developed an aversion to sanctimony and platitudes? Simplistic answers are empty of meaning even though our world wants understanding to come in sound bites or bullet points.

I wonder if I am looking for the answers among my own people and culture. Am I trying to reason out a response for others or extrapolate an answer to "fix" the situation from my understanding of the world--one which has not included the life and experiences of being a refugee? I think people are quite capable of resolving conflict in their lands, but when a family has very little time to decide whether to flee their home or stay and face the consequences of violent attacks, there's not a lot of time for pondering conflict resolution. They're just trying to stay alive, or more realistically, keep their children alive.

There was hopelessness in Gihembe Refugee Camp when we spoke with some of the refugees who were part of an ESL (English as a Second Language) class. They were told not to ask questions about their specific cases, ask if we knew if they were going to be resettled, and, if so, when that would be, or could we help them get their cases through the process (or the pipeline). Nevertheless, these were the only questions they cared about. They asked them anyway, and they were answered by the agency representative. One of the pilgrims asked a man, "What gives you hope?" "I have no hope," was the reply.

All we could offer was encouragement to continue learning English and continuing one's education, just in case you were lucky enough to get out. In truth, no matter what the result of their refugee processing, getting an education would be beneficial, but it wouldn't bring them more water.

"Why is the West Silent?" is one of the news headlines I read just a couple of days before we departed. I don't know, but I do not have to be. If refugees are pleading for us to advocate for them, then I will. Because I was asked to, not because I think I know best what I should do for a refugee, but because their lives and stories are just as important as my own. I hope their voices continue to speak and I hope I continue to listen even if my mind grows weary of it. So many of the people working on behalf of refugees told me they keep at it, facing discouragement day in and day out, because it's worth it for even one to make it.




Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What if the Hokey Pokey IS what it is all about? by Spencer Cantrell

This #ShareTheJourney pilgrimage has flown by.  I cannot believe that tomorrow we will be venturing out into the nerve-wracking Nairobi traffic for one final time to the airport, to return home after ten days that were amazing, inspiring, and yet tragic in Kenya & Rwanda.  

This trip has been devoted to understanding the plight of people who are refugees.  In order to do so, we have visited Gihembe camp in Rwanda.  We have met with the Resettlement Support Center, UNHCR, IOM, and countless others.  So many professionals have devoted hours of their time to explain to us their work and why they are so devoted to it.  But I am not sure that all of the meetings completely clicked in my brain until today.  

This morning's schedule included a visit to Heshima Kenya.  This amazing enterprise supports women and girls ages 13 to 23 years.  These women and girls are supported by shelter, education, vocational training, case management, and other advocacy efforts.    Most of the women and girls there have survived a host of horrors I cannot comprehend: kidnapping, rape, torture, sex slavery, unlawful detainment, torture, and separation from their families.  

Reading the litany of things the women have survived at this NGO, you could never imagine what we were greeted with when we visited.  After an introduction to the work of Heshima, we were treated to a beautiful dance performed by the women and girls of Heshima.  I could barely keep back tears of joy and tragedy as I danced with these survivors.  I later learned that one of the songs we were dancing to was about their faith in God.  That's right- a group of women from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Somalia were dancing together.  Muslim and Christian women danced together praising God, and I had the privilege of joining in.  

Then we went to visit the classroom attended by the children of these women and girls.  The ravages of war have caused girls as young as 13 to become pregnant and end up at Heshima; this NGO provides schooling for the children so their mothers, often still children themselves, can attend school and gain the skills to be independent.  These children also danced and sung for us, led by an incredibly joyful teacher.  Their performance included a Kenyan rendition of the Hokey Pokey, one of my personal childhood favorites.  

The Hokey Pokey is when many in my group could no longer hold back tears.  For the past several days, we have repeatedly confronted the data of refugees: the high numbers of people stuck in camps; the low percentages of those that will be resettled to the US; the high rate of hunger and disease in the refugee camps; the too low number of liters of water given to refugees in the camps.  

But looking into the faces of these children putting their left and right feet in and out, I could see the possibilities.  I could see their optimism for the future.  I could see the hope.  While the title of this blog post might seem tongue and cheek, it was through the hokey pokey that I could really see what the work of helping refugees was really all about.  

The children of Heshima have the chance for a bright future.  They have the chance for an education, a career, a livelihood that will support them and their families.  It is my hope that Episcopal Migration Ministries can continue its tireless efforts to give these dancing women, girls, and children a chance to succeed.  

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Unexpected Hospitality

This morning, after we decided to attend All Saints Cathedral, an Anglican Cathedral in Nairobi, we were warmly welcomed by Selline Korir into her home for tea and hospitality even though she had no idea we were coming. Selline began our visit with a prayer and invited us to sit for a cup of tea. After politely chatting for a while in the living room while Selline made the tea, we realized from our own experiences that where women gather is often in the kitchen for real conversation.

While Selline was ensuring the Kenyan Chai tea was boiling on the stove in a pan with milk and sugar, being fueled by the propane tank to the side, she began to tell stories. Out of the corner of our eyes we saw her goddaughter and nieces diligently begin washing the cups and saucers.

Selline shared with us her amazing work with peace and conflict resolution, which sounded to us a great deal like women's empowerment, as we had been told of her work with Rural Women's Peace Link. She was awarded the Mietek Pemper Award in 2014 for "acknowledging outstanding, sustainable, and unconventional achievements in the area of mediating in and solving secular conflicts in politics and society." We were informed later that this was not all this determined, yet humble, woman was involved in.

While wiping spoons, Selline told us about how polygamy has changed in Kenya, noting that we Western women don't understand how it was ever in the culture at all. She told us about her own marriage to her husband and how they intentionally say, "I love you" to one another. This contrasts with the language used in many marriages in Kenya, particularly rural where it is legal to marry several wives (since 2014), where the language is one of a contractual relationship initiated by the man and not a language of love. Selline is intent on teaching these women they have a right to have a voice about and in these marriages.

She explained to us her work with girls whose bodies are exchanged for food and the girls she helps to escape from the perils of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation). She has been instrumental in sheltering and educating girls that ran away from their families to avoid FGM. FGM is a big problem in Kenya, she tells us, shaking her head. Thinking about these girls reminded us of the girls in Gihembe Refugee camp earlier in the week who have also faced these dangers.

Now that we've had a few days to reflect on the plight of people who are refugees, the pain and isolation of displacement, in addition to the threat of violence a woman faces, is still difficult to fully grasp. Even for women who are not refugees life is extremely hard. Most have no voice save that through a man. The household burdens are heavy. Selline told us about her childhood chore of fetching water miles away. The refugee women we met in Gihembe also spoke of having to walk great distances for meager amounts of water.

We were so engrossed in the stories Selline was telling us that we had not noticed the beef stew and potatoes simmering on the stove until the aroma of spices alerted us that a meal had been prepared. In the true hospitality of the Kenyans, a great feast was placed on the table that eleven of us were invited to gather around. Selline's husband, the Reverend Paul Korir, blessed the food and our pilgrimage. A gracious hostess, Selline waited until everyone else had helped themselves before getting her own food. While she is a well-educated and confident woman, her early cultural influences were apparent from time to time.

As we were finishing our meal, Selline spoke with the women pilgrims about her life's work and the challenges she has faced. While most of us find debates on Beyoncé's feminism frustrating, Selline is on a whole other plane. Her frustrations include four death threats, threats of arrest, and overcoming distrust in many villages in Kenya. Selline's incredible faith shone through every story she told. How police were sent to arrest or kill her, but because they found a humble, unadorned woman devoted to God, they could not follow through and instead let her go. She gave glory to God.


A Kenyan meal is not complete without a cup of tea to round it off, Selline's husband informs us as we start to make a move for departure. Selline prepared yet another large kettle of Kenyan tea. This time our fellow pilgrim, Burl, helped serve. This cup of tea led to a conversation with the Rev. Korir, Selline, and all the pilgrims. The Rev. Korir and Selline told the story of their romance and faith journey, which included a few laughs. Rev. Korir pointed out Selline's complete dedication to the Lord through service and faith. It took him six months of patient waiting while she prayed on his proposal. Following God's will was of utmost importance to her. Their union has been a mutually supportive bond between them and it was obvious.

As we cleared the cups and saucers we were sad to see our time with Selline and her family draw to a close. We were impressed and felt enveloped in love by The Korir's hospitality and dedicated faith. We hope they will visit Houston and Washington, DC, so we can return the favor.


Saturday, March 7, 2015

Gihembe Refugee Camp

I've seen a lot of poverty in my life having traveled to some of the poorest locations on earth for many years, so Gihembe Refugee Camp in Rwanda did not surprise me. The faces of the children, their still youthful joy and hunger mixed together in their eyes, stay with me in a growing collage of eyes and smiles and tears and pain that accumulate in my memory. But, it does not minimize the impact this has on my mind and heart and soul for appalling circumstances don't really mean much to most people until one looks into the face of another human being.

The smiles and joy don't appear very often in the faces of the teenagers and adults. Time seems to have caused a hopelessness that wipes the smile right off a face. Many families here in Gihembe have been waiting up to 20 years to hear if they're going to be resettled. These children? Most were born here, but no one chose to be here. Gihembe is the end of the road for those who had to flee persecution. And for far too many, it is a dead end.

Before setting out to the Gihembe Refugee Camp an hour outside of Kigali, we met with our hosts in Rwanda, UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). We were briefed on the work of UNHCR in Central Africa, particularly in Rwanda.

Rwanda is only 1/4 to 1/3 the size of England with a population of over 12 million people. It currently hosts five refugee camps with a total population of more than 74,000 refugees. Ninety-nine percent are from DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo). The job of UNHCR, RSC, and the many other organizations that work together on behalf of those displaced by persecution and violence to get them resettled somewhere and somehow, is daunting, but each person involved express dogged determination to do just that. Even at the highest level, there is a commitment that far exceeds hope to care for these people.

Gihembe refugee camp was established in 1997 after the Mudende camp in western Rwanda was attacked twice resulting in hundreds of deaths. The refugees are from the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and 99% are Mudende massacre survivors who had already fled their country to escape the torture and war they were experiencing in their towns and villages. (More on that later.) When I use words like massacre and torture, please take a moment to think about that. These men and women and their children have experienced and survived horrors that would turn your stomach. I'm talking about 14,000 people in Gihembe alone, a small refugee camp compared to most.

There isn't an adequate water supply to the camp, so although the people have soap, they can't wash. 200 people use one latrine and there is no electricity for the school classrooms or shelters. Food is in short supply and many children receive only one meal a day provided by the school-a nutritious porridge. Here we are walking by a 6th grade classroom where the teacher to student ratio is 1:50.

We finally meet with the refugees to hear their stories. The ESL (English as a Second Language) classroom was full as they wanted to hear about life in America. They knew we were from one of the resettlement agencies in the US and were eager to pepper us with questions about when, how, where, and when will they get to resettle. We could only stress that they continue to learn the language and attend cultural orientation classes. It was all we could offer. We had no idea about where in the process the individual cases were and we knew all too well that in actuality only a small percentage will be resettled.

What stunned me was the affection they had for Americans. (No matter how often you explain that America consists of Canada, U.S., Central America and South America, the United States is still referred to by people from other continents as "America.") They thought of us a generous, kind, and welcoming people. They know that the United States resettles more people than any other country in the world, but they don't know that those numbers have shrunk.

I really wish every politician, religious leader, and citizen had to answer to these fellow human beings sitting in a room like we did listening to such desperate, yet polite, pleas for information, for hope. Too many in the room had lost any hope. It was evident on their expressionless faces. What do you tell people who have had to flee a country they didn't want to leave? Who have now lost the land they had and continued violence makes it impossible to return? That they country that is hosting this refugee camp cannot take them in due to their own weak infrastructure? That other countries who have the means to take them find no moral obligation to either allow them in or, at the very least, fully fund a refugee program that is adequate?

No, we tell them that they must persevere. As if we have any understanding of the perseverance they have had to muster up for years. So, I ask the UNHCR workers how they handle this day after day, and they all more or less answer, if I can make a difference for even one, it is worth it.

I just think we should and could do better than that.










Wednesday, March 4, 2015

First Day

A little jet lagged and some slightly green from malaria medication, we nevertheless appreciated the warm welcome from the Bishop of Nairobi after breakfast.

Following a lunch of, in my case, a samosa and masala chips, we had our first introductory meeting with Resettlement Support Center*(RSC) Africa in the afternoon. This was our first encounter on this journey of being given a massive amount of information that was impossible to process all at once. I'm sure each day will hold enough for me to spend months processing. I'll be providing manageable tidbits in this blog and will provide more information or answer questions (if able) by personal request.

We first were given an overview from the State Department PRM, the well-funded refugee bureau of the US. Refugee work still maintains bipartisan support from the U.S. Government. It is more cost effective for the the State Dept. to support other agencies and NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) because they are able to be much more mobile in areas where security is questionable and these agencies have the person power to do the job on the ground.

The RSC Africa has resettled more than 70,000 refugees this fiscal year, most going to the US. 16,000 are from sub-Sahara Africa. The U.S. resettles more refugees than any other country in the world, over 14,000 from sub-Saharan Africa alone in 2014. Should that number astound you, in perspective only 1% of refugees are actually resettled in the world. There are over 585,000 refugees in Kenya alone, mostly Somali and South Sudanese.

Here one may be asking what the difference is between a refugee and an immigrant. The 1951 Refugee Convention spells out that a refugee is someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country." (UNHCR) An immigrant, however, is simply defined as one who moves to another country. Obviously, some distinction in the matter is choosing to do so while not under threat.

It was clear to us the incredible amount of work this organization is doing efficiently in the resettlement of persons, but most impressive was the attitude and deep commitment to helping displaced persons at every level. You can see the joy of the Director of RSC Africa who was warm, vibrant, and very dedicated to the work of RSC Africa and to his staff.


*RSC Africa is part of Church World Service (CWS) of which The Episcopal Church is a member.



Saturday, February 28, 2015

My Meditation as We Travel This Week

This is a prayer I will be saying as we travel to and in Kenya and Rwanda. I only change the "me" to "we."

Christ Be With Me

May the strength of God pilot me,
the power of God preserve me today.

May the wisdom of God instruct me,
the eye of God watch over me,
the ear of God hear me,
the word of God give me sweet talk,
the hand of God defend me,
the way of God guide me.

Christ be with me.
Christ before me.
Christ after me.
Christ in me.
Christ under me.
Christ over me.
Christ on my right hand.
Christ on my left hand.
Christ on this side.
Christ on that side.
Christ at my back.

Christ in the head of everyone
to whom I speak.
Christ in the mouth of every person
who speaks to me.

Christ in the eye of every person who looks at me.
Christ in the ear of every person who hears me today.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Importance of the Faith Community

I am grateful to have been selected to go on a pilgrimage with Episcopal Migration Ministries in March. I have immersed myself in books, web sites, and videos, devouring information about the Democratic Republic of Congo, in preparation for the #ShareTheJourney pilgrimage to Africa. The statistics, the history, the case studies, the testimonials, the photos, the processes, all wash over me and even invade my dreams.


Living in the Houston, TX area, I've met several refugees and immigrants, and even connected with Interfaith Ministries of Great Houston (, the local affiliate of Episcopal Migration Ministries of the Diocese of Texas. I still don't know how these families manage to survive going through the multi-phased process, relocation, and resettlement in America! I know the practicalities of the interviews, the training, the sponsors, and the basic provision of shelter, food, and clothing when they arrive. But, I am talking about finding life, making a home, and maintaining self-sufficiency in a new world in a relatively short time frame.

In a nutshell view of what a typical Congolese refugee might go through from flight to resettlement, here's what it looks like. Try and place yourself in a similar situation.

First of all, you hear that rebels are on their way to your village. It has been a constant pattern of flight and hiding for a few years. Most women you know have been raped, many of your friends have died or disappeared, so you flee and hide your family the minute you hear of trouble. You have one minute to grab what you need in a bag and run.

You then join with other people from the village, some from other villages, on their way to a refugee camp across the border. It is safer in numbers, but you most likely will face many dangers: rape, hunger, dehydration, illness, violence, and even death. (I have a friend who lives in Houston who fled the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s. She had a daughter and twins. She fled the village without knowing where her husband was. She made it to Kenya, but not before she was raped and one of the babies beaten to death tied on her back. The surviving son graduated high school at a Jesuit school in Houston recently. He wants to become a priest becaues it was the Jesuits in Kenya that took them in, kept them safe, and helped get them to the United States.)

Once in the refugee camp you still must find ways to protect yourself from rape, illness, violence, etc. Did I mention that the Congo is considered the rape capitol of the world? Yes, rape is an often practiced weapon of war these days.

At this point I am aware that apart from the physical damage suffered, most refugees are dealing with extraordinary degrees of psychological, emotional, and spiritual assault. Living in cramped quarters with several thousand who are also trying to get a grip on what just happened to them and their families probably does not allow one to process and heal very easily. These temporary settlements become rather permanent.


I think it is easy to generalize in this way and never actually interact and hear from a person who has lived as a refugee. Those few I've known who have fled violence in their countries and endured horrible hardships have also been joyful, grateful, and full of dignity. I guess I'm just not sure I'd fare in the same way, and I am sure a number do not, but there is something about suffering that can either destroy a person or make them what I'd call human plus. It's the plus (we might call this God, Spirit, Christ, or a Higher Power) that seems to be the thing that makes the difference.

In some of the research I've read on the reesettlement of peoples in the US, it appears those that "make it" are the ones plugged into a faith community right away. They are invovled with this community several times a week. Now, that's the plus I am talking about becuase once they reach the US, they may be free from persecution and have access to education, but they have to learn a new language, learn all the unspoken rules about a new culture, learn the laws of a different society, and find a way to become financially independent in six to nine months. When a church steps in to sponsor a family, it appears most of refugee families are able to do just that.

So what does that mean for us who represent the faith communities in the United States? If case studies and other research are finding that these commuities, and in our case the Episcopal Church, do aid a family fleeing persecution in becoming productive citizens of the US and engaged members of the Church, then how could even the skeptic refuse to step up and become a friend?

In an age when the Church is often purported to be losing its relevance, here is yet another example of why that might not be the case at all. Church, faith, community, relationship. That is the link to survival, it is ministry, it is hope.