Thursday, June 23, 2011

Nothing Can Separate Us

by Jen Bradbury
Women washing clothes in the Kiziba Camp
Sitting on the balcony overlooking Kigali this morning, my emotions are muddled. I am tired - emotionally & physically - and in that sense, ready to go home.  Yet, I am amazed at how quickly this place and these people have wormed their way into my heart, making it difficult to leave.  

Muddled emotions have become the norm for this trip - especially over the last two days when we journeyed to Kibuye to see the Kiziba Refugee Camp.   In many ways, this is the part of the trip that our team and I have been most looking forward to as it's so closely related to the on-going work that we do at Faith with our refugee community.  

Yet, if I am honest, journeying into the refugee camp was one of the most difficult aspects of this trip.   The camp sits in what is, quite possibly, one of the most beautiful spots in the world, nestled high on a Rwandan mountain, surrounded by lushness, overlooking beautiful Lake Kivu and the Congo.   It's not fenced, but geography traps its inhabitants, preventing most people from journeying outside of the camp though they are technically free to do so.   It takes an hour to travel up the long, windy, dusty road by car.  I cannot even imagine how long it would take to make this journey by foot.  

Once in the camp, our senses were assualted from every direction.   Dry season in Rwanda quickly turns dirt roads to nothing but dust that blows everywhere with even the slightest wind, clogging our noses and making it difficult to breate.   Pugnent smells permeated the air - a mix of overused bathrooms, 20,000 people who have not bathed crowded into a very small land mass, and rotting food.   If ever there was a smell of poverty, this was it.  

And oh the sight of this camp.  It simply made me want to cry.  Within the camp, there were layers upon layers of brown - brown dirt;  brown people;  and small brown  houses made of clay and sticks that sit one on top of the other, each covered with a UNHCR (United Nations Hgh Commision for Refugees) tarp.  

As soon as our jeeps entered the camp, we were surrounded by people - leaders from the Camp and the "youth group" within the camp as well as kids in a sea of blue school uniforms.   These kids break your heart with their bloated bellies, faces riddled with sores, and dried snot all down their faces.  They look uncared for;   Forgotten.   And in a way, that's the word that I  think best describe the refugees in this camp - forgotten.   They are forgotten by a world who rarely acknowledges their existence or the on-going war in the Congo that caused them to flee.   (To date, this conflict has resulted in 3 million deaths.)  

Garden nursery in the GCM youth group garden
While at the camp, we received a warm welcome from the leaders of the youth group.   This "youth group" is really made up of young leaders from the camp who range in age from teenagers to 20 and 30 somethings.   They are one of the few groups within the camp that gave us hope.  These individuals want to make a better life for themselves - both after they leave the camp and while they are still in it.  To this end, they run businesses, charging cell phones for people in order to earn money;   Selling jewelry;   And cutting hair.  Proceeds support the group and its activities, provide seeds for a garden used to provide supplemental food for the most vulnerable in the camp (the elderly), and provide extra income for people to buy additional food to offset the 12 kilos of rice, dried corn, beans, salt, and oil that they receive each month from the UN.  Often this food arrives rotten, leaving people hungry and desparate, grossly malnourished.  

During our two days in the camp, the leaders of the "youth group" gave us a tour of the camp, showing us their businesses, the schools, the hospital, the football fields, and welcoming us into their tiny, tiny homes. As they showed us around, they explained the problems they face in the camp:   Lack of food;  Boredom that comes from eating the same thing day in and day out for 15 years (the length of time many of these refugees have been in this camp);  Lack of education and opportunty - the UN will only pay for school until Grade 9;  Disease;  And perhaps worst of all, the hopelessness that comes from being stuck, yearning to go home to a place where they would likely be killed if they tried to return, yet unable to work in Rwanda, and unwilling to be resettled elsewhere for doing so would mean giving up their dream of returning home.

We caught just a glimpse of these problems in the children, who as soon as they finished school for the day, swarmed us, often to the point of making us uncomfortable.  Longing to talk with us in their robotic English (taught by non-native English speaking teachers);  Trying to touch us - our hair, our arm hair, our white skin;  And hounding us with phrases, "Give me water bottle.   Give me money.   Help me go to United States."  In many ways, it seems that these kids have been trained to know that white people provide - they come to the camp and give things to them, some of which are useful, some of which are not.  From our vantage point, this seems to have created an unhealthy, frustrating dependency on us.  And yet, how can you blame these people for seizing the opportunity and asking us for what they need when their needs are vast, almost incomprehensible.  As one of our students said yesterday night as we debriefed, "How do you even begin to help when people need so much?"

That's a question I know I am and will continue to wrestle with.   As I finish writing this morning, worship across the valley has just ended and the praise songs have ceased for the morning, reminding me of the joy in Christ that we have seen throughout our journey here in Rwanda, even in the midst of great poverty and despair.   Throughout our time in Rwanda,  I have been reflecting on Romans 8:38-39:   "I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."  

After our time in Rwanda, I would translate this verse, "I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor poverty, nor AIDS, nor a lack of clean water, nor a lack of shelter and family, nor war or genocide, nor being a refugee, forgotten and without a home, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."  

And yet, even though these things will not separate us from the love of Christ, they are issues that represent an unjust world.   They are problems that have tugged at the heart strings of our team as they've gained understanding regarding their complexity and important.   This understanding became evident last night as our team connected what they saw in the refugee camp with conversations we've had and behaviors we've seen in our own refugee community.  Our experience in the camp explains so much and brings with it a greater understanding and empathy for our refugee neighbors.   Though our time in the camp left us feeling drained, it also convicted us, something that I saw last night as our team shared how they hope this experience will have changed their lives five years from now.   Pastor Heidi cast a vision for an extraordinary refugee ministry at Faith.  Another adult shared how he wants to walk through Parkside Apartments and be part of that community, with refugees knowing his name and story and calling him a friend.  Students shared their commitment to spearhead efforts in our community to meet the needs of refugees when they initially arrive by providing them with the supplies necessary for life in America and explaining why clothes don't go in the refrigerator but meat does (something that makes so much more sense now that we understand most refugees have neither refrigerators nor meat!), by walking alongside of them as they struggle to adapt to life in America, and by continuing to serve during ESL Kids Club.  Another student shared how in five years she hopes to be sponsoring her second child through International Teams, to enable him or her to finish high school.  Still others shared how they hope this trip will continue to give them purpose - even as they enter college and choose their vocations, vocations that our teens hope will make a difference to people - at home, in Rwanda, and throughout the world as they continue to address the many problems they've been exposed to here on this trip:  AIDS, poverty, lack of clean water, lack of education, street kids, and the plight of refugee.  

Thank you for supporting this trip - financially and prayerfully - and enabling students to be in places and situations that though sometimes overwhelming, also leave us raw and open to what he is doing in us.   My prayer is that as we return home  our community of Faith will continue to rally behind this team, walking alongside of them as they live out their dreams for justice, birthed in Rwanda during this trip.



  1. Have a safe trip home. We look forward to seeing you! God's speed. Love, Kathy

  2. Jen, you have summed up the trip in a way that will make us all think about how we go forward and help. Thanks to you, Doug, Heidi, and Pastor Heidi for steering the effort to provide our young adults with this deepening and rich experience. We are fortunate and blessed that you are at Faith and look forward to your return. (Carlo)