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:

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.


What did you leave behind?

I had the joy and privilege this past Saturday of being able to attend the annual Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference, held in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia.  As many other attendees noted, it was a beautiful thing to spend time with others—complete strangers from all over the world—with whom I could immediately connect because of our similar cross-cultural backgrounds and experiences.  I met other women who were trying to adjust, and help their families adjust, to life back in their “home” country after living abroad (check out this post about repatriation written by a new friend I met at the conference).  We commiserated about the feeling of being “hidden immigrants”—looking like we belonged in our passport country, but feeling so alien inside.  We shared tender stories of seeing our children navigate their own inner “foreignness” among peers who have no clue.

The conference theme was “Finding Home: Amidst Global Change.”  It was fascinating to listen to international business people, foreign service personnel, NGO workers, missionaries and grown-up missionary kids (MKs), international educators, mental health professionals, writers and others struggle together with the concept of “home.”  What does “home” even mean?  Is it possible to find “home” when you move over and over again?  What if “home” has nothing to do with our passport country?  Can we create a “home” for ourselves even if we are globally mobile?  What effects does that mobility have on us?  On our children?

The beautiful thing to witness was how gentle and gracious everyone was with with each other’s stories.  In myriad ways, we were able to say to one another, “Your story matters.  Your losses and triumphs matter.”  There was an intense focus on supporting one another, on helping different groups of people to navigate global mobility in healthy ways, and on making sure no one was left alone.

I was particularly struck by one question that a presenter said is important to ask children (or adults) who are struggling because of a big move, or as a result of frequent moves.  The question is, What did you leave behind?  

So, I’d like to wrap this up by asking those of you who have moved, especially often and/or cross-culturally, What did you leave behind?  I’ll start: I left the balcony where my daughter took her first steps; the apartment complex where my son learned to ride a bike; the ability to call out my kitchen window to friends hanging out outside; keys to all my friends’ homes; my electric scooter; neighborhood walks involving greeting all the shop keepers/fruit vendors we knew; and some aspect of my identity that now needs to be rediscovered or redefined in this new place.

What did you leave behind?


My favorite mode of transportation



Paradox, Part I: Exiles and Pilgrims

(This is the first in a series about paradoxes of life and how we live with them.)

“I called it ‘Hurt.’” Collin was eating some cheese and crackers at the dining table after school, describing for me an art project he had done that day. The students were shown abstract works of art made with angles and were asked to create their own. “Nobody in class knew what mine was about, but I think maybe the teacher understood.”

He described how he had used lines, angles and various colors to represent his life and adventures in China, Thailand and the Borneo Rainforest. He also tried to illustrate the pain of many goodbyes—the “severing of friendships,” as he so eloquently put it—due to the transient expatriate community overseas. He rattled off a short list (although his is long) of other losses and confusions of identity that he somehow tried to express visually in his piece. By the end of his explanation, the tears were flowing (his outwardly, mine inwardly). I realized that he was describing a deep inner sense of exile that is common to TCKs,* especially those who are repatriating.

I believe that many—all?—of us live our lives with some sense of exile. We experience it and are aware of it to varying degrees, but it’s there. So many of our quests, our longings, our purpose-seeking, and the stories we create and tell are about trying to find our way home. Home being that place—literal or figurative—in which we feel wholeness and true belonging, and in which broken relationships are restored. We feel we were made for this something— yet what we are living falls short of the ambiguous ideal in our minds. We are “east of Eden” now and whether we realize it or not, our lives are permeated with lost-garden narratives. “This shouldn’t have happened to me;” “This isn’t the way my life was supposed to turn out.”

I’ve written before about the tricky issue of home and about the meaning of place. For those of us who are TCKs, our struggle to make sense of home tends to be a bit messier, perhaps, than some others’. Exile occurs quite literally in our lives, sometimes over and over again as we move in and out of multiple cultures, gaining and losing each time. The soil of each place clings to our roots each time we are transplanted to a new location. And so often we can never go back; for reasons related to finances, distance, sometimes even political upheaval, the doors are closed. Exile.

So, whether we are TCKs or others longing for “home,” what do we do with this? Some of us adopt a “grass-is-always-greener” mentality. We pine for what was lost—physical homes, familiar neighborhoods and cultural norms, food, friendships—and we just know that if we could go back there, everything would be okay. The discomfort and sense of displacement would disappear,…right? When I recognize this tendency in myself sometimes, I try to identify it and apply the cure: contentment and gratitude for what I have now, for where I am now. It’s hard. But I’m learning to root into the narrative of the place I live now.

Others of us choose to become tourists. Hey, we’re exiled anyway, nothing feels quite like home, so we might as well have some great adventures and take a lot of selfies along the way! Our commitment to relationships is tenuous and shallow, we evaluate our experiences as if we’re writing for TripAdvisor, and we’re always trawling for our next destination. When tempted to live this way, I remember that “the eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth” (Psalm 17:24)—restless, disconnected from present realities and people. Oh, and tourists also ooze entitlement out of their pores. I, for one, don’t want to live this way (though it’s tempting at times).

There is another way, and it’s the way of the pilgrim, or sojourner. Pilgrims and sojourners are on their way to a destination, but they know that they’ll be traveling all their lives. While they understand that they are “just passing through,” their minds and hearts are awake to the weighty significance of each moment. They know that on their journey they will be tested in a variety of ways; that small moments and kindnesses matter and will be remembered later; that everything depends upon being fully present and available to each season and interaction. Pilgrims sometimes carry others’ burdens for a while, even if it means going out of their way for a bit. They don’t demand fair weather as their due, but are humbly grateful for it when it comes. Likewise, they don’t curse the storms, but seek to bear up under them and remain true to course. They don’t ask, “Why me?” but instead, “Why not me?”

Pilgrims learn to walk a life of paradox: even though their hearts are set on their final destination, they walk through each day alive to its possibilities, people and lessons. They live the paradox that it is sometimes through suffering that we discover our deepest joy and heart’s desire (for more on this idea, check out Larry Crabb’s book Shattered Dreams: God’s Unexpected Pathway to Joy).

I’m thankful that Collin is choosing healthy means—artwork, tears, conversation—to deal with his own sense of exile and longing for home. It’s not always that way, for him or for any of us, is it? I’m hoping that as I walk the pilgrim way, I can invite my kids to walk it with me, and that eventually we’ll each find our way home.

* A third-culture kid (TCK) is someone who has spent a significant portion of his or her developing years in a culture outside of his or her parents’ home culture. The mix of the parents’ home culture and the host culture creates a “third culture” for the child. TCKs don’t fully identify with or feel they belong to either home or host culture; they are a mix of both and a little of neither. Repatriating, or returning to one’s “home” or passport culture, is often bewildering, stressful and frustrating to TCKs because they essentially become hidden immigrants. They look much like everybody else (they are not obvious foreigners anymore), but there are many aspects of their identity, culture and worldview that make them feel very different from their home culture peers. They look like they should fit right in and “get” cultural cues and norms, and so often they don’t. They question their identity and wonder where they belong. I am an adult TCK, as are both my parents, so my children are third-generation TCKs!

The Gift of Presence

My family and I moved recently to colorful, gritty, spunky and historic Baltimore— “Charm City.” Our earnest desire is to plant ourselves here and not move again for a long, long time—as in decades. As such, we are doing careful research into where we want to buy a house, where we want to send our roots down. It’s a big decision.

Right now we have endless possibilities in front of us. We have the luxury of comparing neighborhoods and streets, surfing Zillow and imagining ourselves in each home, making our mental list of priorities and preferences. But one day soon, we’ll make a decision. As in one. One house, one neighborhood. We will love it, probably, but it won’t have everything. There will be some things we have to let go of in order to choose that one house. And once we move in, if we begin second-guessing and continue to imagine ourselves elsewhere—what if we had chosen that one instead? would we be happier?—we will make ourselves crazy.

When we say yes to one thing, we say no to others. When I said yes to my husband, I said no to the possibility of any others. When we say yes to this house, in this city, we will be saying no to others. That means it’s time to let the other possibilities go. They can’t camp out in a someday-room of my brain, enticing me from time to time with dreams and what-ifs. If I let them stay, they will slowly eat away at my contentment and at the purpose for which God has chosen a place for me.

As a third-culture kid who grew up in six different countries, I’m longing now to put down roots in a flesh-and-blood place with flesh-and-blood people. Within an actual physical boundary. I want to know and be known in this one place. I love, love, love my friends and family and peeps all over the world, but I also want to live life with the people right in front of my face each day. I want to be able to reach out and touch them, to give and receive hugs, to hold a hand in solidarity and sorrow. I want my physical home to be a welcoming place for relationships to grow.

This morning I asked God to begin weaving the threads of my family’s life into the fabric of others’ lives here in this city. I believe place matters to God. It is not inconsequential. He puts us in places, and He does it for a reason. I’ve lived much of my life feeling somewhat guilty for desiring to feel connected and rooted and part of the fabric of a specific place. After all, I say I belong to Someone who had no place to lay His head while He walked the earth. Oh, and heaven is my ultimate home, right? Yes, I believe that, and my longing for it grows each year that I’m alive. But I also believe that God wants me committed to the place in which He has placed me, to be fully present here so that His Emmanuel-nature can live through me in real love, presence, healing and grace. I can’t do that by remaining detached and uncommitted and discontent and transient.

Recently one of the elders at my new church gave a message, simple and bold, on the story of the paralytic’s four friends who broke through the roof to get their friend to Jesus. He asked us, “Are you a friend? Do you have friends?” The hurt and the longing of those words pierced me right through. Am I a friend who is vested so much in others that I will seek them out in their pain and paralysis, push through crowds, carry them and their burden, claw through whatever obstacle is facing me, and bring them to the feet of Jesus? Even now, as I sit here, new to this place and beginning relationships in hope, do I have friends who would do that for me? How I desire that.

So, I’m saying yes to this soil, to this plot of ground in the garden. I’m sending out my tentative little roots, feeling for the nourishment and life-giving water that is all around me. I’ll endeavor to “Emmanuel” myself where I am, choosing contentment of people and place and discovering the One who is active in them, making all things beautiful.

The gift of presence—His and ours—is the best gift.


“Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you….Pray to the Lord for it.” Jeremiah 29:7