Review: The Invisible Girls

Jen Bradbury
May 03 · 5 min read

As a lover of memoir and an advocate for refugee ministry, Sarah Thebarge's The Invisible Girls quickly stole my heart.

In this book, Sarah weaves together her battle with breast cancer (which she was diagnosed with at the age of 27) with a chance encounter with a Somalian refugee family that changes her life. With brutal honesty, Sarah openly discusses the sadness and hopelessness inherent in both of these journeys as well as the surprising moments of joy she finds along the way. She eloquently describes how both her cancer and her experience with the refugee family impacts her faith. Yet she does so without hyperspiritualizing either. In her words, “Unlike what some people from my church tried to tell me, cancer was not a gift from God; it was more like a demon that escaped from hell.”

Because of the honesty with which she shares her journey through both cancer and refugee ministry, the pages of this book are also filled with several profound insights regarding refugee ministry. At one point, Sarah describes how difficult it was for her to decide to ask the Somalian mom she'd befriended to share her story knowing her daughter would have to hear and translate it. She quickly realizes, however, that “she wasn't just translating words for me. She'd lived their story and nothing I could ask her to translate could be as bad as what they must have gone through already.” Sadly, this is a truth that all who work with refugees must eventually confront. No matter how much we might want to, there is nothing we can do to shelter these families (even their children) from the horrors they've already experienced.

Later on in the book, Sarah describes the daunting task of helping her Somalian friends navigate social services so they can stay in their apartment. As she does, she concludes, “In spite of everything I'd try to do for them, they were still on the brink of disaster. They were still about to slip through the cracks and the safety net I'd tried to construct for them could not hold their weight.”

As is often true for those who dare to do refugee ministry, befriending those from another culture and faith also gave Sarah a new lens through which to view and wrestle with her own faith. In her words, “For all the differences between evangelical Christian and fundamental Muslim religions, the culture these extreme groups created for women was very similar. I know from experience what it was like to be shrouded under yards of ill-fitting fabric. To fear your sexuality... To live with the assumption that you are not complete and cannot fulfill your purpose in life without a man to impregnate and provide for you.”

In the end, though, what I most appreciated about this book is the hope found within its pages. Despite her refusal to sugarcoat cancer as a gift from God, ultimately Sarah discovers God's presence throughout her journey; Despite the frustrations that so often accompany refugee ministry, ultimately what Sarah discovers is it's healing power – not just for the Somalian family she befriends but for herself as well.