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Apr 02, 2015

Refugees are Resilient in Face of Overwhelming Situations

Congolese refugees at Gihembe Camp in Rwanda gather for wash day.

Refugees exist in dusty “temporary” hillside cities with thousands of others in camps across Kenya and Rwanda. “I have no hope,” one man responded to a group from the U.S. who visited the Gihembe Refugee Camp in northern Rwanda with Episcopal Migration Ministries. The camp was established in 1997 to host Congolese refugees who fled conflicts in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Today, nearly 15,000 people--half below the age of 18--live in the camp.


Alyssa Stebbing, outreach coordinator from Trinity, The Woodlands, was one of eight pilgrims on who traveled to Central East Africa in March. Although the refugees they spoke with in the ESL class were told not to ask the visitors about their specific cases or ask for assistance, these questions were the only ones they cared about, Stebbing said. “They asked them anyway.”


The group went to learn about the process of resettlement of Congolese refugees from the moment of flight. Stebbing returned with memories of faces, stories and the “paradox of joy and pain” she witnessed in sub-Saharan Africa, especially Heshima Kenya. Here, 13-23 year old girls and young women who have endured war, the loss of their families, kidnap, rape and trafficking, even torture, finally find respect. Sixty to 80 percent of these girls have experienced sexual and gender-based violence.


Country director and mentor Alice Eshuchi has developed a program that teaches entrepreneurship and how to generate income through a local collective that fosters self-sufficiency. Music and dance help them face their traumas and the training prepares them to plan for their future, either in Kenya or back home. They learn to create and manage a line of textiles, how to save money, open bank accounts and other life skills. Heshima Kenya is currently developing a small grant initiative for collective members to create their own enterprises.


“Their resiliency is amazing,” she said, “All of them pressed us about coming to America, ever hopeful that they could find a new home and a new life.”


“The news is full of the dangers –violence, war and corruption--in Africa, but no one gets a chance to meet the people, to peer under the umbrella of generalizations and hear the stories of individuals who live and work and eat and pray in this complicated land,” she said.


In Kenya and Rwanda, the group met with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees among others who work in the refugee and resettlement NGOs. The struggle to adequately meet the needs of refugees is overwhelming. The reality is that only one percent are eventually resettled so Stebbing asked aid workers if they enjoyed their work. “Yes,” they consistently replied because, “If I can help even one, then it is worth it.”


Stebbing was overwhelmed with the scope of the work that brings agencies, governments and religious organizations together to try to help the critical situation caused by so much unrest. All the aid groups work together to address the refugees’ needs.

Reports of the flight of refugees from Somalia and Syria filled the news even as the pilgrims listened to refugees share their stories about life in the camp. Rawandans they met are still traumatized by the brutality they suffered during the genocide in 1994. They regularly encounter the perpetrators of massacres and rapes they witnessed and suffered. Within the camps, the suffering is deep and wide.


The EMM group represented five states and included an author, two communicators, a legal consultant, a middle school chaplain, a canon to the ordinary and a youth missioner in addition to Stebbing.


“I realize that the mere ability to reflect on suffering is, in large part, a luxury,” she said, adding that she now felt responsible to “give voice” to what she had seen and heard, at the same time recognizing “chronic compassion fatigue” of the West. In the camps, “All we could offer was encouragement to continue learning English and one's education, just in case you were lucky enough to get out,” she said.



For information on migration ministries in The Episcopal Church, see:


See for more information on refugee camps in Rwanda.


Contact Stebbing or the Rev. Linda Shelton to learn more or if you would like to partner in helping with migration ministries. or