Like a Refugee (sort of)

Our caravan of white Toyota sedans wound its way slowly through the looted city on its way to the banks of the swollen, muddy Congo River. Some fires were still smoldering, broken glass all that remained of some shops and businesses—even doors had been pulled off their hinges and hauled away. Everywhere along the roadside people sat, hands between their knees, staring. There was nothing more to take, nothing more to do.

Since the airport in Kinshasa had also been attacked and looted by soldiers desperate for back pay and by citizens who followed them, the American Embassy was going to ferry us across to Brazzaville, Congo, to await flights out of the country. We had been allowed one suitcase each and had said goodbye to our cat that early morning, putting him outside the back porch with a heaping bowl of food. It was eerily quiet as we left our house—no bullets zipping through the streets, no yelling crowds—just the acrid smell of smoke in the air.

During the five days prior, soldiers and citizens had rioted and looted all throughout the city of Kinshasa, many frustrated by President Mobutu’s rich and corrupt administration, which drained the country of its astounding natural wealth and let its people suffer in poverty. Perhaps others were just opportunistic. We had watched tracer bullets zigzag crazily through the dark each night; some had lodged in the walls or roofs of the houses on either side of us. Our CB radio (we had no phone) crackled at all hours of the day and night with calls to the embassy from frightened expats who were told to lock themselves in bathrooms while the mobs raided their homes. We stashed backpacks of essentials in our bathtub and pulled the curtain to hide them, hoping we could run into the room and hide if people started forcing their way into our home. Rumors flew—somebody said that a Lebanese classmate of my brother’s had been raped as her home was being looted. Over several days, the embassy had gathered all the Americans in the city onto five compounds and were now arranging an evacuation.

After the ferry ride and the waiting at the diplomatic compound in Brazzaville for most of the day, we were bused to the tarmac in shifts and put on a plane bound for Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. One blessing of the experience was being able to reunite with friends whom we hadn’t seen during the whole week of violence and rioting in the city. We had this one flight to say our goodbyes. After three hours on the tarmac in the hot plane, and then a 17-hour flight (with one refueling stop in the Canary Islands), we landed in the U.S. to media crews and the Red Cross. While our parents signed multiple forms and made phone calls to relatives, we were fed hot dogs, bright plastic-looking apples, and bags of chips. We shivered in the late September chill, and the Red Cross produced blankets for us.

My grandparents drove from western Pennsylvania to pick us up, and we spent the next few days trying to settle in to the little log house we lived in during the summers. My grandparents’ church donated some fall and winter clothes to us, and my mom tried to shop for groceries. She fled the store halfway through, leaving her cart, because she was overwhelmed to the point of tears at the abundance in each aisle. She couldn’t help but think of how she had tried several stores in Kinshasa in the last few weeks just to find ones that still had butter, sugar, flour—the staples—while she carried plastic bags full of worthless currency. A local news channel did a human interest story on our family the night before my brother and I enrolled in the local high school—“Out of Africa,” they called it. We’re almost like refugees, we said, alternately chuckling and crying.

Almost like refugees. Except not, in so many ways. Yes, there was a potential for physical harm and we didn’t feel safe. We had to flee our home and most of our belongings, knowing that most likely we would never see them again. We were given food and clothing when we first arrived, and people were kind to us as we tried to settle in to a new life.

But we were returning to our own passport country, to family, to people who spoke our language (even though I had only lived in the U.S. once before for a year as a little child; and I experienced deep culture stress after the evacuation). In the midst of that stressful, scary experience, when we were also dealing with loss and grief, we were welcomed in. We didn’t have to hope for shelter—we already had a place to stay. We didn’t have to spend years in a refugee camp scrounging out an existence.

Our evacuation from Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) is the closest I’ve come to experiencing what refugees go through. So many of the stories I read, particularly those of people who have fled ISIS-controlled areas and the civil war in Syria, are mind-boggling in their horror. Women and girls are watching their fathers, husbands and brothers being slaughtered, and are then taken as slave concubines to the Islamic State’s slave markets. Families are fleeing their destroyed homes in Syrian neighborhoods after losing their children to exploding shells. HALF OF THE REFUGEES IN THIS CRISIS ARE CHILDREN.

And, friends, some in this country of embarrassing opulence are calling for the government to shut its doors in the faces of these vulnerable ones.

Those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ should be the LAST voices that should ever join in that call. Scripture reveals God’s clear ethic and call on this issue over and over again (look up the words “foreigner,” “stranger,” or “alien” in a Bible concordance or index). Remember the Good Samaritan? He asked no questions—Jesus was smart to describe the victim as half-dead and unresponsive. The Samaritan didn’t ask him his religious persuasion before tending to his wounds. It is abundantly apparent that loving our neighbor (and our enemy) trumps protecting “me and mine” in fear.

Today, as I write this, the Senate is debating a bill that the House already passed that would close the doors to refugees from Syria and Iraq. Click here to read a timely and urgent letter urging against this type of legislation, signed by former secretaries of state, homeland security, and national security advisors, as well as former chairs of joint chiefs of staff: http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/sites/default/files/FormerNatSecOfficialsLetterRefugees.pdf.

We in the U.S. have the luxury and capability to vet refugees. The process is rigorous. It is not 100% terrorist-proof—no process can be. But the cost to our country and to our souls is too great if safety is our idol. We’ll trade too much of ourselves away, and what will be left?

This country must remain a refuge for people in need.