I would embark on one of the richest, most beautiful, stretching and humbling journeys of my life.
I was driving in an RV with my family in South Dakota when Rob Scott called me on the phone and asked if I wanted to help lead a group that would help come alongside a refugee family that would be coming to the United States (Rob serves Arrive Ministries as their Refugee Life Ministries Director of Vision and Development). After praying about the opportunity and saying yes, I would embark on what has been one of the richest, most beautiful, stretching and humbling journeys of my life.
The Airport Arrival
In December of 2015, our Refugee Life Ministries team from Emmanuel Covenant Church headed to the MSP airport around 10:00 PM to welcome the family we had been matched with, that was coming from a refugee camp in Thailand. Heidi Luhman and I headed to the gate, complete with our sign that welcomed each family member by name in Karen, their native language. I remember watching for them as various people got off the plane; we kept holding up our sign and looking for a family that would recognize their names. Finally, we found our family.
I remember seeing the dad, Hler Htoo and El Dohtoo, his son, smiling the biggest smiles and carrying one singular white bag with blue writing, which is the bag that all refugees carry their belongings in, and one small backpack. All of the belongings of their family of six in two small bags. I remember seeing the mom, Pawteebweh looking exhausted, as she carried her baby and held the hand of her four-year-old daughter, coming from an incredibly long flight with four kids under the age of 13.
It was an amazing, humbling moment to be a part of – the reuniting of family and new beginnings.
We got to lead them to where the rest of our group waited, along with their family members who had waited almost nine years to see them. Among those waiting were Hsa, who got to greet her sister whom she hadn’t seen in nine years, and Paw Teebweh’s mom, who had tears streaming down her face. It was an amazing, humbling moment to be a part of; the reuniting of family and new beginnings.
Helping Meet Practical Needs
Once our sweet family was here, our RLM church team started with the practical pieces needed to help them adjust to their new lives here. We took them to social security and job counselor appointments, doctor’s visits, helped register their kids in school. It was amazing witnessing all of the things they needed to get done and all of the forms that needed to be filled out, yet each of these were little opportunities for us to start connecting with our new family.
I had the incredible privilege those first months to spend a lot of time with El Dohtoo, one of the sons. El Dohtoo has brittle bone disease, and because of his health needs, it took his school almost four months before he was able to attend classes. In the meantime, I got to teach him, and he taught me. We played a lot of UNO so he could learn colors and numbers in English (and me in Karen). We practiced important English questions that he’d need to be able to answer. He learned English letters and sounds and then I got to teach him how to read. He was incredibly smart and it was so humbling to see all he was able to do once given the opportunity to learn. We also got him connected with Gillette Specialty Care. I will never forget the day he was fitted for his power wheelchair. As I watched him practice in the demo chair, I had to go into the other room because I was so emotional thinking about how different his life would be here, from the wooden wheelchair back in the refugee camp, to the freedom and independence he would have here. It was humbling.
I will never forget the day he was fitted for his power wheelchair…
Connecting Across Cultures
I remember the times I would be nervous before I would go over to help with an appointment. What if I couldn’t figure out what needed to be done? What if we couldn’t bridge the language barrier? What if something was awkward? I always prayed before my time with the family – and even in the stretching times – God was faithful to move me out of my comfort zone, to stay humble attempting to speak a language I knew I was butchering, and to allow for connection between people who had lived very different lives.
I’ve often tried to put myself in their shoes over the last four years. What if I had to leave my home to protect my family? What if I had to start over in a country where I didn’t speak the language and everything was different and new? It’s given me new eyes to see and given me gratitude for so many things I take for granted.
I’ve often tried to put myself in their shoes over the last four years…
I have so many precious stories from the last four years spent together: we have celebrated birthdays, shared meals, had a baby shower, prayed in hospital rooms, attended a funeral, built wheelchair ramps at their home, my boys and their boys attended summer camp together every year, we have served together at Feed My Starving Children. But more importantly than these memories, is who this sweet family has become to me: my friends, my family. They have enriched my life and my family’s lives in so many ways with their resiliency, their determination, their love, and their amazing courage. When my boys hear people talking in the news or at school about refugees, they aren’t a group clumped together in their minds; they have names, they have stories, they have hopes and dreams just like my sons do. A few years ago my youngest son Caleb decided to run for “mayor of kids” and his slogan was “refugees are good people for our lives.” I love that he has been able to experience that in his own life and wants to help others see the value of our refugee friends.
Jesus’ Beautiful Story for our Lives
I often tell my kids that if we are walking with Jesus, He writes our stories, often in ways we would never plan or dream. Five years ago, I knew little about refugees or the worldwide refugee crisis, other than an occasional story I would see on the news.
Then I got to lead a church team to welcome our refugee family. Refugees became my friends; and just like in any friendship, what matters to them, matters to you. God ignited this passion in my heart for the vulnerable and marginalized, those people that sometimes the world chooses not to see. I strongly believe that this heart that I have for refugees is because it is God’s heart and passion, living in and through me.
Not only do I have refugee friends, I have had the honor of working on their behalf, from pursuing equitable schooling for El Dohtoo, to writing a letter advocating for their relatives in the Thai refugee camp, asking to be given refugee status and allowed to join their family in the United States. Last fall I was asked to be on the Board for Arrive Ministries; it is humbling to serve on this Board that is so committed to welcoming the stranger in Jesus’ name and advocating on behalf of those who often do not have a voice. Jesus has written this beautiful story in my life and used me in ways I would never have dreamed.
…this heart that I have for refugees is because it is God’s heart and passion, living in and through me.
I recently read about a man in a magazine who said he had, “resolved to not let hate or an initial fear of the unfamiliar keep me from pressing through to find the treasure that comes when you relate to a person different from yourself.” As I sit next to these friends who are like family to me, they are the treasure God has given me as our family and our church team have followed God’s command to welcome the stranger among us.