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17 Years a Refugee

Emily Linn is deceptively engaging. She is petite, seems to have unending energy and looks you straight in the eye when she speaks. Even her eyes seem to smile.

The deceptive part is she’s usually talking to you about some of the most tragic things you can imagine.

Emily is the head of Canopy NWA, our local refugee resettlement effort, and was masterfully conducting volunteer training a couple weeks ago when she commented in her usual upbeat way, “The average refugee spends seventeen years in a camp before they are eligible to immigrate. And what I can tell you from my personal experience is that is true.”

Even though she kept talking afterward, I was just floored by the thought of it: Seventeen years. That’s a lifetime or more for all the kids in the camps. Can you imagine? To never know any life or community outside a refugee camp?

I’ve never lived in one, but I have spent time in a number of camps in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Based on even my brief visits, I can tell you that if you really set your imagination to what that would be


Can you imagine? To never know any life or community outside a refugee camp?


like, you would need powerful medication to ever sleep again. Think bad, now think worse, multiply by a hundred and you might get close.

Thankfully Emily kept talking, and I was pulled out of my cloud. She was sharing about all the positive ways to help welcome, serve and assimilate those coming to our area, most of whom are widows with children who fled the genocide in West Africa twenty years ago. I started to feel a bit more positive, but then she did it again: She started talking about the incredible struggle most resettled refugees have with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Often the symptoms don’t appear until after a long period of relative safety away from the camps. As a person who experiences episodes of PTSD, I know it can go on for years, even a lifetime. So once again, I was lost in thoughts of the challenges these brothers and sisters will face even when they are settled in a new country.

But Emily coaxed me out of my contemplation with her positive attitude and realistic strategies for offering compassionate and empowering ways to walk alongside these families that will be coming into our communities. She was relentless in not compromising the magnitude of the challenge or the opportunity we have to serve “the least of these” with the love of Jesus.

I need more people like Emily in my life. In the meantime, though, I’m going to listen closely and follow her lead as part of our Grace Church team that will welcome our first family from the Congo in the coming weeks. It’s a widowed woman with now teenage boys and a young niece who fled Rwanda in 2000.

Seventeen years exactly.

Addendum: Since I wrote this post, President Trump has issued an executive order suspending all refugee resettlement efforts for at least 120 days and for refugees from some counties indefinitely. He also cut the number of refugees allowed overall into the US by more than half. For an organization like Emily’s and many others, this is a major blow. So much of their effectiveness depends on momentum; to come to a screeching stop like this will take substantial effort to re-start, if that is even possible. Personally, we know that our family coming from the Congo already had their tickets bought and bags packed. Looks like it is now going to be more than the seventeen years they have already waited.

For more information, please check out Canopy's website.

John Ray is a missionary, spiritual director and the elder responsible for teaching at Grace Church of NWA. John and his wife Jane spend way too much time packing and unpacking, vacuuming dog hair and chasing raccoons off their porch. They much prefer sharing good food and good coffee with friends, reading and trying to keep up with their daughters.

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