“So don’t be fooled when the sun finally appears!” she told me, with a twinkle in her eye. Mama P had become my best friend since we moved to northern Finland. She had just finished telling me how, in her first winter here, when the sun finally made an appearance again in her balcony window, she had run to throw open the doors, expecting at least a little of that warm sun beam feeling. Only, instead of being greeted with the usual temperature of around -20, she was greeted with a temperature of -35! We had a good laugh as we reminisced about the warm Congo sun that we both knew so well.
She had fled from DR Congo years ago, and we had lived there as missionaries. We were both in agreement that though we did not miss the violence, we sure did miss the heat and sunshine!
I have heard people say of refugees that “they just need to hurry up and adapt, give up their old ways, after all, they chose to come here.” It makes me sad to hear because often that isn’t correct. We have only worked with refugees for a short time, so we don’t claim to be experts, but we have learned a few things along the way so far.
Much to grieve
The refugee didn’t actually choose to come to wherever they are now. They fled something horrible, were luckier than those who died along the way, often lived for many, many years in a refugee camp, still having to fight for their lives, and when their turn came to leave the camp, they were matched with whichever country was up next to take refugees. While the refugee is likely very grateful to be out of danger (though persecution may continue in their new country), they are still grieving a great loss. They are grieving loss of family members, friends, culture, language, home, and loss of any dreams they might have had for their life. Even if they have an education, they are usually limited to jobs for the uneducated due to an unwritten class ceiling. They also frequently end up feeling excluded by their host country. Here in Finland, many have lived for years without having been invited into the home of a Finn. They are trying to adapt, but it is hard if nobody helps them navigate the new culture. They also, understandably, don’t want to let go of everything that makes them who they are.
A lot to learn
When God suddenly (in our minds) moved us to Finland, we found we were quite ignorant to all this and even had vocabulary to learn! Starting with the word ‘diaspora’, which is a group of people who have been spread or dispersed from their homeland. We then had to understand the difference between migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, partly because we learned they would be found in drastically different situations.
A migrant is usually hired by a company and may or may not be in the country all year round. However, some people do migrate permanently into a country for work or through marriage. I am a migrant.
Then there are refugees and asylum seekers. This took us a little time to wrap our heads around. A refugee is selected by their host country from an official refugee camp where they have been staying. We know one family who was in a refugee camp for 18 years before being selected. An asylum seeker is someone who manages to get into the country by their own means and then applies for asylum. A refugee will normally be completely legally accepted by the host country, with everyone assuming they are there to stay. An asylum seeker is usually granted certain things by the host country while they await a decision. A decision which may be, “sorry, you’re on the next plane back to the country you ran from,” or “yes, you may stay.” An asylum seeker, in addition to their other stresses and traumas, is also suffering from the fear of not knowing if they may be sent back to whatever they ran from, which could quite possibly be to their death.
So why is diaspora ministry important?
First of all is the obvious reason, which is that every individual is important to God. But there are other reasons too. These folks tend to have family and friends all over the world. Because of the connections that our diaspora friends have, over the course of a week, Timo will be online teaching brothers and sisters in places like Finland, Canada, Australia, Zambia, Congo, and another country that can’t be named for security reasons. Many of these connections come from refugees who have spent 10-20 years in camps and have maintained those friendships, despite being separated as they got selected to go to different countries.
So, as your paths cross with diaspora in your own community, consider that the life they have led, and are still leading now, may be unspeakably tragic. They may have already learned they are not welcomed by many in your country. Their burden may be too heavy for them to engage with the outside world. Often, refugees are happy to talk if you show that you care. Once you have developed a friendship, if they are Christian, you may find they have much to teach you. If they aren’t, love them towards Jesus.