I am so excited to host today a woman who has changed my life and worldview. I have written before about my friend Whitney, a former coworker at my university, who spent several years slowly chipping away at the crust of my heart just by being exactly who she is and doing so unapologetically and with enthusiasm and passion.
Whitney has since followed her calling to do trauma-based education with refugees in Europe. If what follows stirs your heart, consider donating to the International Association for Refugees by clicking here and choosing “Gerdes” from the drop-down menu.
The numbers she leads with can feel staggering, but please keep reading to hear the heartbreaking story of one man. And if you have questions, please post them in the comments.
Okay, enough of me. Here’s Whitney:
written by Whitney Gerdes
The term refugee has become a bit of a buzzword these days. Mentioning “refugees” in certain contexts can even create a visceral response or a more-than-you-bargained-for debate! While, the last 3 years has brought the desperation of refugees to the forefront of media there have been refugees way before there was Twitter. For the sake of this discussion we need to clarify a few terms.
A refugee is a subset of a larger category of people called forcibly displaced people (FDP). Currently, there are 65.6 million people that have been forced to flee their homes as a result of persecution, conflict and/or human rights violations. This is the highest number recorded since WW II. That number is only increasing with 10.3 million people uprooted from their homes in 2016, which means that 20,000 plus people have to flee for their lives every minute. Of these FDP’s 40.3 million are consider internally displaced (IDP), which means while they had to leave their home, they there able to find temporary safety and shelter in their country of origin. That leaves 22.5 million that are considered refugees who have had to leave everything familiar and throw themselves on the mercy of a foreign government and people for safety and an opportunity at a better life.
These numbers are ridiculous, and certainly overwhelm me so let’s zoom in and hear a story.
I met Justin in a refugee camp in Italy. He had just arrived by boat a week earlier. He actually came on a coast guard ship after being rescued from the Mediterranean sea. That is because he was on a rubber boat that was overfilled with over 100 people, and was not able to withstand the waves. His boat capsized, and he was one of 7 survivors from that boat of over 100 people. This story alone was enough to destroy me, but Justin’s treacherous journey began two months earlier when he left his home and family in Nigeria with the hope of being able to get a job in Europe and provide for his family who were starving and had no other visible option.
So, he traveled by car, bus, and by foot on his way to Libya. He gained three other travel companions, whom he spoke of fondly. However, all three were shot during a car jacking in Niger. He then was imprisoned multiple times in Libya for being dark skinned before he made enough money to pay a smuggler to get him on one of the rafts to Italy. Justin’s face as he told me his story was almost apathetic, but he wanted me to know what he had gone through. He told me about his dreams and goals for the future that centered around providing for his mom and siblings back in Nigeria, and a wife and children of his own one day. Of course he told me these plans with cautious hope because he knew his chances were slim. He knew that most likely he would not be granted asylum the first, or second time he applied, but he still hoped that he would get it.
I timidly asked him the question that was burning in my head, “After all that you went through, do you still think you made the right decision leaving home? Was it worth it?” He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “I don’t know yet, but I do know that the hope of what could be here in Europe is already better than the reality I knew back home.” How valuable and powerful is this hope, this perseverance, this resilience and faith that Justin and so many others like him have had to develop?
You see, people don’t choose to be refugees, they don’t choose to risk their lives– because there wasn’t a choice. You would only leave everything behind with your children because the threat of death and anhilation is chasing you out.
I don’t know if Justin has been granted asylum yet, but many have both here in Europe and America. While, receiving that positive confirmation is cause for great celebration, the re-building of a life takes some time. This usually means learning a new language, new culture, new climate, new educational system, new job skills, and a new way of life. While organization such as Preemptive Love Coalition, UNHCR, the Red Cross, and Samaritan’s Purse are doing the front lines work, organizations like the one I work with, the International Association for Refugees picks up where they leave off.
Once FDP have settled to some degree, the emergency services stop and the needs change. Relationships, connection, and empowerment is what they need. There is great power in inviting refugee families into your world, and then in turn being invited into theirs. All of the trauma that so many people have seen and experienced can cripple a gifted mind and strong work-ethic. While professional counseling is most often needed there is great healing power in having your humanity seen and heard through relationship.
To learn more:
Preemptive Love Coalition
Humans of New York’s Refugee Series