A year ago, I visited Kiziba Refugee Camp in western Rwanda.
This camp is home to more than 20,000 refugees from the Congo, where an on-going civil war has resulted in the death of more than 3 million people. It is a conflict rarely talked about or even acknowledged in international news. Yet, it's brutality has resulted in thousands fleeing the Congo every year, desperately seeking safety. Those forced to flee their homeland for fear of persecution or death are called refugees.
Refugees are a people with literally no where to go. When refugees flee their homeland they take only what they can carry. They leave with virtually no resources. As a result, they can only go as far as their feet can carry them, usually to a bordering country already inundated with thousands of other refugees like them. This makes it impossible for the bordering country to absorb refugees into its economy or infrastructure.
To bridge the gap, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) establishes refugee camps in bordering countries to house and care for fleeing people. The UNHCR gives refugees a tarp to construct a “house” and a meager per person food allotment. It provides water and sanitation and works with refugees to establish camp hospitals and schools. The latter are necessary because oftentimes people remain in refugee camps for years, waiting for the conflict in their homeland to end so they can return home (the desire of every refugee I've ever talked to) or for a third country to allow them to resettle in it.
More than a year after visiting Kiziba, I vividly remember the stench of too many people living too closely together. I remember the constant sting of the dry, Rwandan earth hitting my skin after being churned up by the wind. I remember the voices of adults doing business and children laughing and singing. I remember seeing thousands and thousands of people, stuck - trying to make the most of a monotonous existence despite being scarred by the horror of their journey there. What I remember most is Emile.
During my two days in Kiziba, I toured the camp with Emile, the president of JCM, a youth organization that works with the camp government to improve life in the camp. Emile proudly showed me the community garden JCM tends in order to provide the most vulnerable in the camp with food and the hair salon and cell phone charging station they run to help finance their ministry. He took me to a beautiful overlook and pointed to his homeland, which he could literally see from there. He called it the “most beautiful place on earth.”
Emile also took me to his house – a mud and stick hut covered with a UNHCR tarp. He invited me inside, telling me, “You are welcome here”. We sat together in a room only slightly bigger than my bathroom as he introduced me to his family. His grandma shared how she had been in the camp so long that she could not remember what her life was like before arriving there. His sister returned from teaching at the refugee school and went to prepare the same dinner their family ate everyday for 15 years – rice and beans. As houses in the camp lack electricity and running water, she did so in a shared “kitchen” at the end of a row of houses, over an open fire.
Despite his meager surroundings, Emile is a man with many dreams. During my time in Kiziba, he shared with me how he wants to make something of himself so that he can support his family and bring change to his homeland. Driven by those dreams, Emile and his family decided to apply for resettlement. Applying for resettlement is difficult because doing so is to admit you are tired of waiting and that you are likely to never return home. It is to say you are open to going elsewhere. It is to put yourself at the mercy of people you have never met and countries you know little about. It is to undergo a lengthy process filled with written applications, interviews, and medical exams and characterized by frustration, disappointment, and at times, intimidation.
When I met Emile, he and his family had been approved for resettlement. They knew their new home would be the United States, though they had no idea where within the US they would be resettled. They also did not know when they would be resettled. As a result, when I left Emile and Kiziba, I felt fairly certain I would never see him again.
However, via Facebook, I learned Emile was resettled in Denver, CO in December, 2011. The following April, I found myself in Denver and arranged to visit Emile at his new apartment.
He greeted me at the door with a hug and the words I remember him saying in Kiziba, “You are welcome here.” Emile invited me into his home, extending hospitality. As we visited, he shared his struggles since leaving Kiziba – how someone had to explain to him that turbulence would not make the plane on which he flew to America fall from the sky. He talked of seeing snow for the first time; Of having someone explain what a dishwasher, washing machine, and dryer are for. He talked of the difficulty of learning English and of finding a job. He also shared the joy of finding a new church.
After spending time with Emile, he took me to a nearby apartment, where I was reunited with his mom and siblings. When the time came for me to leave, Mama prayed for me in a language I do not speak. I left in tears, having powerfully encountered the God we both worship and serve.
Much to my delight, in August, my husband, Doug, and I returned to Denver. Once again we reconnected with Emile, only this time we did so with our family in toe. As we left Emile's apartment to take him out to eat, Doug leaned over to me and said, “This is so surreal.”
After dinner, we went to see Emile's extended family. During our visit, we talked about the continuing war in the Congo. At one point, Emile confessed, “Only God can bring peace to the Congo.” Later that night, as Doug looked around in wonder at us sitting on Emile's couch in an apartment in Denver, he too reflected, in awe, “Only God can do this.”
And the truth is there is so much that only God can do.
Yet, remarkably, there are some things we can do as well. When we see a need, we can meet it, thereby partnering with God in his kingdom work here on earth.
Emile showed me this in Kiziba, where he worked to improve the living conditions and bring hope to a desolate place – a place where challenges still abound today.
Like Emile, I, too, want to be part of what God is doing in Kiziba. That's why, on September 29, I will be participating in a 15-mile Ride for Refugees to raise money for International Teams' Impact Rwanda. International Teams is the sending agency for Jen and Serge Kamari, long-term missionaries in Rwanda. Through International Teams, they serve the oppressed - widows, orphans, and refugees. They do this in Kiziba, where they develop and invest in leaders, provide scholarships for refugees to finish schooling once they've completed the meager education offered in the camp, and supply capital and training for micro businesses. In so doing, they bring hope to a place filled with hopelessness.
Emile was the beneficiary of this hope. When I last saw him in Denver, he said this about Jen: "It's possible for one person to bless an entire nation".
Through I-Teams, Jen and Serge bless others in Kiziba so that they, in turn, can also bless others.
Emile is living proof of this. In Kiziba, he blessed others. In Denver, he is continuing to bless others.
Funds generated from this ride will enable Jen and Serge to continue blessing others through their important ministry in Kiziba.
And so I invite you to give whatever you can to this ministry.
As Emile said, only God can bring peace to the Congo.
But this you can do.
Through your gift, you can make a difference in Kiziba today.