The United Nations reports that as of 2014, there were over 50 million refugees in our world. Tonight, I’m going to meet five of them.
Statistics can easily make our eyes glaze over and maybe even harden our hearts a bit. And 50 million — that number staggers but also dehumanizes. All that misery, dislocation and pain can’t be comprehended.
That’s why the five people that I’m meeting, to be relocated from the other side of the world to Omaha, Nebraska, the city where I live, will put a human face on an overwhelming number. It’s why a group to which I belong, Ignatian Associates, volunteered to help furnish and equip an apartment for these newcomers.
We can’t help 50 million people, but maybe we can do something for five.
Ignatian Associates is a loose community dedicated to the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. We try to support each other in prayer and “apostolic activity,” a fancy term that basically means doing good things, trying in our small way to imitate Christ in the world. We don’t always do projects together, but we decided to take on this task as a group.
Refugees travel a long road to resettlement. They’ve fled their homes due to war, violence, famine, social disasters.
The United Nations oversees camps for refugees all over the world. “Camp,” with its connotation of a few nights spent roughing it in a tent before heading back to a nice mattress, doesn’t begin to describe the living conditions for some of these refugees. Some have been in the camps for decades, even generations.
Even when the U.N. chooses someone to be resettled in another country, it’s still a long process. The U.S. Department of State accepts a certain number of refugees, and parcels their cases out to agencies in each of the 50 states that help refugees adjust to life in a wildly new and different environment.
These agencies rely on volunteers for help. Naturally, a lot of that help comes from churches and faith-based groups who hear the mandate, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Some refugees arrive speaking no English. Some have never seen a toilet flush or operated a light switch. Relocation is not a magic elixir. It’s hard to climb out of poverty and overcome feelings of disorientation and loneliness and culture shock.
Since my husband and I have a relatively empty basement, my house became the staging area for our project. People helping with the project began bringing in sheets, towels, futons and recliners. A man’s bicycle appeared. Pots and pans, a small microwave, a toaster, a queen-size mattress and the essential can opener made their way to my basement, as well as toothbrushes, toilet paper and soap. Some things were gently used, some were gleaming and new.
As the arrival date for “our” refugees neared, we were given names, ages, sexes and country of origin.
We were given the keys to a run-down little apartment in a part of town where rent is cheap. After all, these refugees will be expected to find jobs and support themselves in short order. One of the volunteers rented a moving truck. Armed with disinfectant and mops, we cleaned, moved in, took note of items needed. We had fun. Our project became a community builder.
Tonight, some of us will go to the airport along with staff from the resettling agency. We’ll welcome a family who defied all those numbing statistics and carry in their hearts great loss but also a deep sense of hope.