By Heather Webb
I met a woman while we were in Asia, and her face haunts me. Her mocha skin is scarred with pockmarks, presumably from adolescent acne. Her hair is dark with glints of a few silver strands. She’s earned each one with the heartache and stress her family has endured. Her smile is warm and easy. But her eyes. Her eyes are what I remember most of all.
She and her three teenagers welcome us freely into their home. They are tall and slender, strikingly beautiful and well-mannered. They share their mother’s elegant features and her eyes shine with pride as she introduces them to us.
She shows us to a small room off the sitting room. Eight desks line the walls. Names that are foreign to me are printed neatly on cards and taped to the wall above each desk. Praise for God’s goodness and provision flow like honey from her mouth. She’s so thankful that she’s able to teach these eight students academics from a biblical perspective. It’s a dream she and her husband have had for a long time, but she never imagined that these would be the circumstances under which their dream would become a reality.
Two years ago she fled her home country with her three children to escape religious persecution. Her husband is an evangelical pastor and his family’s life was in danger if they all remained in their home country. When they arrived at the border, the mother and children were granted tourist visas to allow them to legally enter the host country. The husband stayed behind to continue to share the good news of the gospel. When the two month visa ran out, however, they were suddenly considered illegal immigrants. They can’t legally work and their children can’t go to local schools.
Many, many families from her country have done the same thing. One-bedroom apartments are crowded with six or seven or eight people. Government officials could come at any time and raid their apartments and send them to detention centers. For fear of being discovered, they remain indoors. The children are kept quiet. They are not permitted to run and play. It reminds me of the story of Anne Frank. They are prisoners in a country where they thought they were running to freedom.
One day, while she was away from her apartment with her children, she got a text message. “They are raiding your apartment. Don’t come home.” The four of them immediately boarded a bus to travel a long distance to a different city. They left everything except what they had on their backs.
She told us of two other families from her home country who also fled to this new city. Their children come to her house each day to attend her school. These are the children whose names are printed neatly on the cards above the desks. All eight of her students are far behind on their studies. For the two years that they were in hiding, there was no education. Since they fled to the new city, they are a bit freer to move around, but they still live under the radar.
Her eyes smile when her mouth does as she speaks of these eight students and the progress they have made in such a short time. She is so grateful for the Christian curriculum that has been donated to her school. Each day she begins with a Bible lesson and prayer. Her students are learning their academics through a biblical worldview. Suddenly, her face clouds over and her eyes brim with tears as she talks about the other children—those children who remain in hiding. She longs to welcome them into her school. Her voice catches in her throat as she laments their situation. They have no place to play, no one to teach them, and no one to share the love of God with them. She has to leave the room to regain her composure.
Her eldest daughter pours us glasses of juice as we gather in the sitting room. I receive the juice as a great treasure, knowing that this family has a meager income and gives all they can to help others.
As we ask questions to gain a better understanding of their situation, her son pipes up. His voice was fueled with an undercurrent of frustration and despair. Out of the thousands who have fled from their home country to this one, only twelve families each year are granted refugee status. Of those twelve families, only one is Christian. His mother’s eyes are calm and filled with peace as she reminds her children that God is the one who will orchestrate it all. When granted refugee status, they can begin the long process of being legally relocated to a different country. For now, they are illegal immigrants, doing all they can to help others and share God’s love, but they long to be refugees.
The lump in my throat partially block the words that are bubbling up from my heart. They squeak out and are accompanied by falling tears. “We hear so much about refugees on the news, but being here with you makes it so personal.” My eyes lock with hers, and I squeeze her in a long, tight hug.
We say goodbye, but I know it’s not the end. Her eyes and her story remain etched in my heart. I, too, long for them to be refugees.
Heather and Mike Webb serve as regional coordinators for Global Strategy in Africa.
Be a part of what the Church of God is doing to help refugees. Give online, or send your donation to Attn: Disaster Relief, Church of God Ministries, PO Box 2420, Anderson, IN 46018. Be certain to clearly designate your gift to Project #45.04502.