Somewhere in the places of my yesterdays, I found myself at age 25 living in Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya with my husband and new baby son. Had I known this would have been the case I might have taken strides to, well, be someone else. My husband and I arrived with our new baby boy in July 2001. Nairobi is below the equator and so it seemed that “winter” was upon us with warm rain and pleasant days. We arrived with six duffle bags crammed with all necessary possessions and set up life in an apartment, learning quickly that hot water takes time. “Shower in an hour? Turn on the hot water power.”
And so began the rhythm of our life in Kenya...
Our dinner conversations were consistently about civil war in Sudan, possible peace-treaties, late rains, failed crops in the horn of Africa, hernia operations in bush hospitals, UN bureaucracy and well, all things medical with many nationalities gathered round our table.
One of my first observations when meeting relief workers and field "staffers", was that most relief workers who were men were married to relief working nurses or doctors…people who truly bring life-saving skills to humanity. The observation sat dormant for a week or two and then I began to panic. My husband is a relief worker. What am I?
I can say with some confidence that my brain is not wired for medicine or science. My failed attempt to dissect the proverbial high school frog could be a story in and of itself. Suffice it to say the frog was in a gazillion pieces by the end of the assignment - the sharpness of those exacto knives is hard to judge. Frogs aside, at best, I can take a patient with a small wound and affix a band-aid with some skill. Although if I did find myself in that position, I would find a way to call the Band-aid a “plaster” in order to bring some British refinement to the whole process. I pondered long and hard about my lack of medical savvy and made a declaration to pursue something of a medical-nursing-doctorish nature. The Lord in his infinite wisdom and love spared patients the world over from my declaration and led me down another path - a literal path, dusty and straight, papaya trees on one side and looming avocado trees on the other. One day in late September of that year, having been in Kenya for only a few months, I walked down that path.
The rhythm of women singing a Swahili song kept my feet walking. The music felt like home. Surely somewhere I had heard this music before. Their chorus swelled and ended with a unison “Hallelujah, Amen!” And there I was, in a garden, surrounded by at least 50 women whom I learned were refugees. I quickly did a Google search in my brain for any remembrance or record of refugee and found that my search engine came up limited. My definition for refugee was flat. It had no dimension to it. A refugee is someone who is not living in his or her country of origin. Like I said, flat.
On that day, I greeted many of the women and learned their names and where they were from, Sudan, Somalia, Congo, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Rwanda. I learned that they were part of a micro-enterprise where they were taught to sew. They had a thriving shop and a thriving community of women. Each day, the refugee women came to this place - about an acre of land with a garden, a small café, a peaceful place to work, a sewing room and a chapel. Of course the compound was fenced and gated as are most living/working quarters in Nairobi. I spent the better part of five years at this place, my children with me. I found that all of the space in my brain that could have been wired for medicine was actually wired with creativity and art. With over 350 products being made and sold there, there was room for design and creativity. I worked with a man named James from Uganda. We worked together on producing a small wooden village that he cut with a lathe - with 3 small huts, a tree and several animals all cut, sanded and stained by James - all put in a marvelous fabric bag and sold as a toy for children. His work was simple but brilliant. We talked while we worked and I learned his incredible story. My boys were young at the time - both under the age of five. Their days mirrored mine in some way as they took mud and made “toy” villages of their own, making huts and watering holes in the ground.
Every day I heard more pieces of stories with time piecing them together. Some refugee women told their stories with dramatic actions and vibrant interpretations. Some sat motionless and spoke softly of the trials they had been through. Some cried while some laughed with nervous giggles. They were raped. They were hunted. They were abused. Their children were killed before their eyes or taken away from them. They walked hundreds of miles. They almost starved to death. They left all that they had.
On one occasion I can recall sitting in the garden with a women from Congo. As I listened to her story, I became uncontrollably sad. I cried for several hours. She sat there with me the whole time proving my wonderful suspicion of the African way, that people are always more important than time. At the end she said something like, where you come from you have much, I think you have many tall buildings and many places where water is free and children go to school. But where I come from I have much too, because I come from suffering. I am suffering. I have much. Suffering gives me much. It gives me courage and gives me faith. I have God. I have a memory of where my feet have been. Those footprints remind me to keep stepping.
Over those years, I saw things and heard stories that I never thought imaginable for human beings to suffer and live through. Many of the amazing women that I met were widows or they were taking care of ten or more children, their own children plus their nieces and nephews who were orphaned due to war or disease or HIV. Their stories stretched and pulled and tore at every preconceived notion that I had about humanity, God, sin, and justice.
It would take me several hundred pages to fill in the 5 years of experiences that I had working with the refugee women that I met in Nairobi. Saying goodbye to them in 2007 when we left Nairobi was a very sad day. I left on the same dusty path that had brought me there to the same rhythm of a Swahili song. This time I had heard that song before - many times over those 5 years. And indeed I did feel as if I were leaving home. That dusty path took pregnant-me, my husband and our two boys, age 3 and 6 to a place definitely above the equator and in a few short months of arriving “winter” was upon us…literally and emotionally. Illinois.
Having spent 5 years with temperatures ranging no more than 10 degrees, the dramatic temperature swings in Wheaton, IL, were enough to send me packing. But we stayed. With baby girl born and getting settled, I found myself staring into space for hours. I was thinking of Kenya, trying to take myself back there, even if only in my imagination. I ached for it. One January night, I drove to Target to get some diapers. The snow was falling, of course, and I found myself alone in my mini-van in a foul mood wrestling out loud with God as to why he brought us to this place. Still in a foul mood, I made my way through a small sea of pasty people also at Target for the “necessities” of life. I then returned to my car and said in a rather sarcastic and sinister way, “Oh, good Lord. Help.” In my experience, taking this type of attitude to God never bodes well. It usually ends with a great deal of wasted hours on this earth in a tizzy about what God already has figured out. Still huffing, I turned left out of the Target parking lot onto Roosevelt Road. Through my windshield wipers I could see someone walking on the side of the road. It seemed strange that on a night ringing in at 12 degrees, someone might be walking. As I got closer I saw that she was wrapped loosely in African Kitenge cloth. She turned into an apartment complex and yes, I followed her and what’s more I knocked on her door.
I was greeted with a burst of heat, a reminiscent smell of spices, the sound of lots of children and a smiling women with flip-flops on. Had I not been aware of the chill behind me, I might have thought I was in Nairobi again. She invited me in, which I should have realized that of course she would have done, as African culture is so different than ours. Immediately several children were surrounding me and talking to me. One said, “Hola”. “Hola,” I said and then added, “Jambo sana” (Hello in Swahili). This family was from Somalia. My host promptly gave me her baby to change, which I did, and then I sat down and talked to her. I mentioned to her that I had not been to Somalia, to her country, but that I had lived in Kenya. My very little bits of Swahili came back to me and we managed. She said that she and her family had walked out of Somalia to the refugee camp in Northern Kenya called Dadaab After a little while, I said thank you and decided to go. I gave her a hug. She said, “You can give me job? You see many kids? You can give me job?” I fumbled through a sentence of strange words that really meant nothing and left.
Pause. No seriously I paused for a long time, snow accumulating on my head. And so it was that night that God spun my affections like a top on a table, round and round and round. For months I thought of this woman and visited her. I found my way to World Relief located in Wheaton and learned the facts, the numbers and the plight of the refugees who come to America and are brought to Wheaton. I heard stories that sounded so very familiar, especially the stories of the women. I also heard that one of the greatest needs for refugees is employment. The top still spinning, my husband and I began to talk and pray and ponder. Over the years, my definition for refugee had been added to and was now 3-dimensional. “A refugee is someone who, because of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality or political opinion, is outside the country of his or her nationality." Refugees are in a foreign environment with unfamiliar faces and customs surrounding them. They can often feel isolated and lonely as well as financially stretched.
And so in 2009, The Re:new Project was birthed out of a desire to empower refugee women to gain a viable skill and be, not only in a safe community of women, but a dignified and flexible work environment. Re:new exists to come alongside and invest in the lives of women through a holistic renewal of their economic, social and spiritual lives. What started in a 350 sq. foot room with 5 machines and 4 students, is now a space of 2,500 sq. ft, 15 part-time employees and over a dozen new students from Somalia, Turkey, Nepal, Iraq, Bhutan, Sudan and Tanzania, these numbers and places shifting all the time. Re:new provides a space to relate to others, upcycle donated materials and recreate marketable products.
Working with refugees over the last ten years has profoundly changed my life. I am humbled by their courage and their bravery, their humility and their strength. They are my teachers. The story behind The Re:new Project is a story about life, about how living in community is the only way to live. It is about how God sees fit to enable us all to make it while on this earth - creating, living and being renewed day by day.