We entered the gates and were immediately thrust into the hustle and bustle of the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in Tanzania—one of the largest and oldest in the world. We passed long stretches of mud-brick homes and rows of white tents. Boisterous children ran together, women chatted with babies on their hips, groups of men sat around plastic tables. Our team had come to report on a trauma training program hosted by one of our partners, Fred Otieno. Distributing Messengers loaded with Scripture-based curriculum, Fred was equipping church leaders to facilitate healing groups within their communities.
I said hello and her eyes lit up. To my surprise, she responded in English.
On the first day, I looked around at the 35 attendees and noticed a young woman leaning against a tree, paces away from the others. She wore a denim jacket over a bright yellow printed dress, her hair twisted up at her neck. Her eyelids were dusted with light blue eyeshadow, her full lips painted fuchsia. Her gaze was fixed on the small flip phone in her hands, eyebrows furrowed.
I said hello and her eyes lit up. To my surprise, she responded in English. Her name was Jacqueline and she worked as a primary school teacher in the camp. Her family had moved to the camp from the Congo 20 years before. The next day, we sat in plastic chairs near three women squatted over pots above open flames billowing with smoke. Every so often, we had to raise our voices to be able to hear each other over the clucking of chickens. I asked why her family had fled.
Jacqueline told me her father had been a cassava farmer in eastern Congo. One afternoon, she and her mother and 2-year-old sister were alone when they heard a knock at the door. Men in uniforms forced their way in and started carrying out all of their belongings. When Jacqueline’s mother protested, they slashed at her legs with a machete. And then they attacked and killed her 2-year-old sister. Moments later, her father arrived to find his wife wailing on the floor over the lifeless body of their toddler. The leader then shot her father in the back and said, “You have nothing left here. Now go with your family—or we will kill you.”
At this point, Jacqueline stopped talking and her eyes flickered downward. A moment of silence lingered before she faintly said, “I don’t want to remember.”
My husband and I recently bought a house not far from Clarkston, Georgia. Identified as an ideal location for refugee resettlement in the early 80s, Clarkston has since been dubbed “the most diverse square mile in America.” And while most of our new neighborhood is welcoming, I won’t forget what one neighbor said when we first moved. In a hushed, conspiratorial tone, she admitted she was wary of all those “illegal immigrants” nearby and hoped the government would address the “issue.” My heart sank, not only for her lack of understanding of refugees but because of how differently we thought about our neighbors from around the world.
In response to the question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life,” Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart” and “[Love] your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:25-27). And when asked to define neighbor, He responded with the Good Samaritan story: “And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion” (Luke 10:31-33 emphasis added).
The Greek word for neighbor means “near one.” But if all three men were strangers to the wounded man, what set the Samaritan apart as a neighbor? Was he just a better person by nature? Notice the priest and the Levite saw first and then crossed to the other side, while the Samaritan drew near to the wounded man before seeing. In doing so, the Samaritan was stirred with compassion. The same Greek word is used in the parable of the prodigal son, “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20 emphasis added).
It’s the story of the gospel: “But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13 emphasis added). Likewise, we are to treat those who are far off as if they are near, and in drawing near, we become their neighbor. It’s natural to care for those who are close to us. What’s unnatural is Christ’s invitation to draw near to those who seem far from us—from our experience, our culture, our worldview. And yet, once we draw close enough to truly see someone, I believe we have the capacity to love even the remotest of strangers.
On our last day in Tanzania, I visited Jacqueline’s home; I was her first guest from outside the camp. We walked into a small mud-brick, grass-roof hut. Inside was a living room with four bright plastic chairs and a small table bearing the name of the camp in white paint. “Welcome, please,” she said, dusting the seats of the chairs and gesturing for me to sit. She was beaming.
On the wall behind us was a cardboard box opened at the seams and painted black. Its surface bore faint words etched in white chalk. “Is this where you teach?” I asked. She tilted her head. “This is where I learn,” she said. She’d been paying for English lessons four times a week—quite a financial sacrifice considering her $21 monthly paycheck provided for an entire family of six. I asked her if life in the camp was hard, and she looked at me with a quizzical expression.
“Do you have enough food and water and things like that?” I said.
“Oh no, it is not enough,” she said—a simple fact, unwed to emotion.
We walked eight paces across the compound to the hut shared by her and her younger brother. The right compartment, about the size of a walk-in closet, was her sleeping area. A world map took up almost the entire width of the wall. I pointed out where I lived and she placed her finger over where she lived, and we looked at each other and smiled.
Jacqueline has applied to go to the United States five times. “I pray God to give me this chance,” she told me, her tone sad and confused, “But the chance is not coming for me.” I recalled all I’d been able to do and see before the age of 24. Staying in one place for all those years, unable to leave, was impossible for me to imagine. But at least she doesn’t know any better. I regretted the thought as soon as it crossed my mind. I realize now I was comforting myself about her situation—I wanted to believe she did not feel as much pain or angst as I would if our fates were reversed.
She gestured to the huts around us, “Every day I see the house like this, the house like this,” she said. Her tone was one of resignation. “I don’t see a house like,” she paused to find the right word, “like a good house.” She looked at me, her eyes searching mine to see if I understood. I did. Every day she walks by that map, reminded of an entire world; and while she’s never been beyond the boundaries of the camp—she knows it’s out there, and she yearns for it.
While she’s never been beyond the boundaries of the camp—she knows the world is out there, and she yearns for it.
Today’s technology makes it difficult to ignore the hardships faced by so many in our nation and around the world. But there are still many ways to keep our distance. The first is to avoid them altogether—but more often we are tempted to tell ourselves a story that lessens others’ struggles. I feel this tension even now. I could make Jacqueline’s situation seem not all that bad really; almost beautiful in its own way. Or I could make her out to be some kind of superhero, braving a life you or I could never survive.
Yet in each of these narratives, I am putting distance between you and her. In the first, I am downplaying the reality of her struggle and in the second, her humanity. Even labelling her a “refugee” feels too statistical and impersonal. Whenever we try to understand someone from afar, we will always cross over to the other side of their pain and pass them by. But in doing so, we sacrifice a bit of their humanity—which is the image of God—and a bit of ours as well.
And so I write this article as Jacqueline’s neighbor and friend until such time as she has the opportunity to tell the world her own story—a moment I long to witness.
Photography by Gary S. Chapman