No matter how recently or how long ago you were in high school, my advice is that you try to retain as much of what you learned – because you never know when that knowledge will be needed.
Shortly after I retired in 2015, Ben, a local pastoral colleague, contacted me about volunteering as a mentor to a refugee family from the Congo. The family was being housed temporarily in “Welcome Home”, a small house near his church which the congregation rents in order to welcome newly-arrived refugees for the first month or so of their stay in the United States.
“Jack,” he said cheerily over the phone. “You’re Canadian, aren’t you? You must speak French, then.”
Ben didn’t know that I came to the U.S. from English Canada. But I did take five years of French in high school (Ontario high schools had five, not four, grades at the time.)
“Well, sort of,” I answered. “But my last French class was 48 years ago, in 1967!”
“You’ll do just fine,” he said, more confidently than I felt.
The Congolese family speaks no English, only Swahili. The father, 54, however, had studied French in school. Therefore, Ben needed someone who could communicate with the family using Swahili or French, take your pick.
I have been the family’s mentor since November 2015. The French vocabulary has slowly crept up from the back of my mental hard drive closer to the front. I get by.
There were three in the family at the start: a father, mother, and a daughter, 13.
They had fled war-torn, violence-prone eastern Congo to neighboring Uganda in 2002. The United Nations accepted them into a refugee camp – and that was their home until 2015. They waited for a chance for a new, safer life for 13 years in a not-altogether secure and safe environment! During the last 4 of those years, they were being vetted by numerous intelligence arms of the United States government.
They were joined in Philadelphia some seven months later by their adult son, his wife, and their four young children, who had had to remain in the refugee camp temporarily to clear up some medical issues that prevented them from being accepted by the U.S. with the rest of the family in 2015.
Outreach and welcome to refugees has become a major plank in my unwritten mission statement for retirement. My second novel, currently under construction, will deal with the plight of Jewish refugees in Finland before and during World War II. I was happy to respond affirmatively to Ben’s invitation to mentor this refugee family for various reasons:
- Hospitality to strangers and “outsiders” is a primary value of the Christian faith which I espouse.
- The protagonist in the Christian story was forced to flee suddenly from his hometown with his parents as a toddler to escape the insane violent jealousy of King Herod. My driving the family to the bank and grocery store, and helping them navigate their way in a new and highly complex environment, is therefore, an act of Christian witness.
- My relationship with a family from a distant part of the world and a culture unfamiliar to me is also an act of There is a disturbing tendency in our society to fear the “other”, to be suspicious of people who look different from ourselves, particularly if they have a darker skin color than we ourselves. The current presidential administration in the U.S. has, it seems to me, stirred up fear and anxiety, normalized xenophobia, and unintentionally, (or, perhaps not s unintentionally?) created an environment where acts of hostility, or even violence, against the “stranger” are tolerated. Reaching out to one refugee family is my way of challenging and countering that disturbing trend.
- Furthermore, I consider my sharing in a relationship of give and take with these none individuals from the Congo to be an act of downright The current administration has, twice now, attempted to reduce the number of refugees allowed into the country annually by 50% from the number accepted under the previous President. The administration has attempted to order a temporary halt to accepting refugees. (Who is to say that the 120-day halt will not be extended?) The President’s executive order in January ordered the denial of all refugees from Syria. Thankfully, in each instance, a federal judge put a temporary halt to the President’s order. Refugee resettlement agencies, such as the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, can continue their work of mercy, and refugees can taste freedom – at least for the time being.
After seeing ugly, distressing video of Syrian children writhing in agony after the government of President Bashar al-Assad attacked them with bombs containing deadly sarin gas, don’t we have a clearer, more pressing picture of just what awaits desperate Syrians in refugee camps who are barred from our country.
Till next time, live each day to the fullest. A penny for your thoughts. Leave a comment in the box below. If you would like to continue receiving this blog, click the “Follow” link below.