The IAFR Blog

Field notes, perspectives, stories, news & announcements

A sword to pierce my soul

An asylum seeker looking out over Lake Superior

Last week I met with my friend Tamrat, a scholar, faith leader, and asylum seeker currently living at Jonathan House. We complained together about the cold spell here in Minnesota and made a bit of small talk, but his eyes looked tired. I asked how he was doing and because he comes from a deeply communal culture, how his family back home was managing.

Among my displaced friends, questions like this don't always receive a full answer. How am I doing? How is my family? Where to start? Does this person really want to hear my heartbreak? What will it cost me to bring those feelings to the surface?

The wait and uncertainty are torture.

That day, however, Tamrat chose to share a bit of his experience with me. His family is managing, he said, as well as anyone can in a war-torn and economically distressed country. But his wife was sick with something mysterious, one more stressor that he couldn’t do anything to alleviate.

And his asylum case? Still no answer. It has been many months since Tamrat completed the final stage of his long legal process, and now he checks the mail every day, waiting for the news that will either open the door to long-term safety or send him back into harm's way. The government agencies can’t tell him when the answer will come - it may be tomorrow or still months away. The wait and the uncertainty are torture, he tells me.

It would have been better if I died there.

Tamrat expressed a kind of despair I’ve heard before from my asylum-seeking friends:

“Sometimes I think it would have been better if I had died there. At least I would have been with my family.”

I try to imagine it, and I can't.

Tamrat has young kids; so do I. I try to imagine what it would be like to be apart from them for years, for my children to be in harm's way, for there to be nothing I can do to protect them. I don’t even like to be away from them for a few days. I try to imagine it and I can’t.

Sharing the heartbreak makes a difference.

I tell Tamrat that I’m sorry that he is going through this. “I wish there was more than I could do.”

He replies: “All of you at Jonathan House share in my heartbreak. That really means something to me.”

I can allow the sword to pierce my soul.

I think again of Simeon’s prophecy to Mary: “and a sword will pierce your own soul, too” (Luke 2:35). God spoke these words to me when I was first called into this ministry. To love those who suffer, God said, is to open yourself to suffering also. I pray that God would grow my capacity to share heartbreak, and that I would learn to do so in healthy and holy ways.

I am learning. I can’t solve Tamrat’s suffering; I can’t even understand it. But I can witness it. I can lift it to the God who sees, hears, and cares for both of us. I can allow the sword to pierce my soul.

CLICK HERE to learn more about Jonathan House and how you can help!

- by Bethany Ringdal (Jonathan House)

View Post

A hospital for the heart

Pastor Olivier with Jacob Tornga in Dzaleka refugee camp, Malawi

"Dzaleka refugee camp does not exist on a map. It means we as refugees are forgotten as if the world does not know that we exist."

Olivier's words are not bitter, only honest. He is a refugee pastor, and he speaks for the pain of his community. Dzaleka is a hard place with much pain and trauma. It grieves me that my friend's community experiences so much suffering amid so much isolation in their corner of the world.

Because you came, we know God has not forgotten us.

With the grace I know him for, Pastor Olivier continues his feedback, "But when you came here to bring us this training, not once, but three times, and to care about our trauma, we knew God has not forgotten us." I feel my heart swell with both gratitude and sadness. Sadness for the suffering I cannot alleviate and grateful that God has allowed us to walk alongside my friends in a small but tangible way.

This trauma training has been my dream as a doctor.

Eugene joins in the discussion from his wheelchair. He is an elderly doctor who has come every day to this training, despite the arduous journey through the camp and down the road to the training center. He speaks with profound weight and clarity.

"This training has been my dream. I was a doctor in my country and studied at Penn State University in the U.S. I have treated people's flesh all my life. This week, I learned what it means to treat the heart and the soul, which is what our people in the refugee camp need. This is what I want to spend the rest of my life doing."

Trauma care training in Dzaleka refugee camp, Malawi

Powerful outcomes from a grassroots healing movement.

IAFR responded to a request from a group of pastors in the camp back in 2019 with a three-part trauma training project that finished last year. The testimonies of Pastor Olivier and Eugene encourage us that this was something that connected with the lived experiences of many in the community.

Perhaps the most powerful outcome of this training has been the development of a grassroots refugee group called Tazama. It is a Swahili word that means "Behold. Come and see what the Lord has done." The idea is to say, "come see what God has done in healing us from our traumas." The group has developed an incredible ministry in the camp that has led hundreds of people through “healing groups” of 8-12 people using the Healing the Wounds of Trauma materials.

People are still alive because of Tazama.

One of the pastors, who wasn't connected to Tazama initially, pulled me aside and said,

"Trust is difficult in a refugee camp. I did not originally know any of the founders of Tazama. None of my members had connections, either. But I heard about them and decided to send a parishioner struggling with deep trauma to them for help.

Now, because of the help this person received, Tazama has become like a hospital to me. People with malaria or any other physical sickness can go to the hospital, but those who need emotional support know that Tazama is a place where they can go and find help.

Many people who wanted to commit suicide in this camp are still here because of Tazama."

You are comforting those who suffer.

God comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When we see suffering, we can give others the same comfort God has given us.

CLICK HERE to learn more about our work in Dzaleka.


Learn more about refugee life in this report from The New Humanitarian (28 Feb 2023).

- Jacob Tornga

View Post

IAFR is a member of the ICVA Network.

IAFR | 1400 Van Buren St. NE, Suite 200-244| Minneapolis, MN 55413 | | 612.200.0321

Copyright © 2023 International Association for Refugees. All rights reserved.