I recently travelled to the US from Uganda to visit Deke, Eli, and Mattea. I thought I was just going to visit my kids in America, but this flight took me on more of journey than I had anticipated….
It began shortly after my arrival at the Entebbe airport. I went through the initial security check that is required upon entering the airport, and as I began to get in line to check my bags, I was instructed to move to the priority line as there was a large group checking bags in the regular line.
The group consisted of a few dozen people of all ages: preschoolers, teens, young adults, middle age adults, and senior adults. They were obviously African, but I couldn’t figure out from watching them what type of group this was. All I could tell was that they seemed to be less "comfortable" there than the people typically seen in the airport.
I checked my bags, went through immigration, and proceeded to wait at my gate. I didn’t see the group again before boarding.
After I boarded and got settled, there were still many vacant seats left on the plane. All of us passengers were becoming more and more hopeful this wouldn't be a full flight. Once everyone on board was settled and it seemed about time to depart, another passenger asked the flight attendant if we would indeed have room to spread out. She said that according to her information, the flight was fully booked.
Moments later, the entire group from bag check boarded. It was quite obvious that none of them had any idea of the process of boarding a plane. They tried to put 4 kids in 3 seats (because they “fit” ... so why not?), people were trying to decide which seats to take (not according to their tickets), children were not seated with adults, people were reluctant to put their carry-ons in the overhead bins, and even the typically unflappable KLM flight attendants were becoming a little, um, “flapped”.
I was growing more and more excited that the seat next to me for the long 8+ hour flight to Amsterdam was still empty… until it wasn’t. My seat mate arrived, I said a quick hello, turned aside not really interested in small-talk at the moment, and we took off soon after. I leaned against the window, settled in, and tried to go to sleep.
There was some moving about and talking amongst the group during the flight, but not a lot. A couple of times, my seat mate got up and talked with someone in the group.
About an hour before landing, when people were beginning to move about more, I asked my seat mate if she were with the group. She said she was, so I asked what kind of group it was. She said, “It’s a group of refugees from Democratic Republic of Congo being resettled to the US”, and she was their escort. I asked where in the US they were headed, and she said “Atlanta”. I asked what would happen when they arrived. She told me that she wasn’t sure. She just escorts them, turns them over, spends one night, and flies back.
As I recalled what I had observed of the group, I began to cry.
That luggage they were checking? All they have left in the world.
Those preschoolers? They’ll never truly, deeply know their culture - I'm sure their families will celebrate holidays and cook some traditional foods the best they can, but “culture” is far more than that.
The younger adults? Probably a mix of excitement and also a level of fear. The opportunity can be great, but the hurdles and hardships they must overcome to live in an entirely different culture will likely be a challenge in some ways for the rest of their lives.
And the older adults? I cried most for them. They know they are leaving their home probably never to return. They have no doubt lost loved ones to violence and/or disease, and many of the ones who remain behind they will never see again. There is no going back to what once was. The dreams of our youth are of prosperous, peaceful, joyful lives - never of losing family, friends, our very country, everything we’ve ever known, and spending our last days in a land where we will never fit in or feel we truly belong.
I thought about the most heartrending scene of the evening: an older woman who, while in the bag check line, sat down on the luggage cart with her small amount of luggage and quietly traced the logo on the small plastic bag she was carrying. I now know the logo was IOM’s, and I can’t imagine what was going through her mind as she looked at what represented her new opportunity and at the same time a life that she was leaving behind forever.
I know that some people would say they’re “lucky”, but that’s not the word I would choose. Of course, they are among the very few who are given this type of chance for a new start, but it’s going to be so, so, so hard. East African culture is different beyond explanation from American culture. The contrasting views of family, economics, work, time, food… everything they do will be a challenge.
I’ve learned living in Uganda for the last 2 years that living day-in and day-out in another culture is exhausting beyond anything I ever imagined. And creating a “new normal” is hard, no matter your reason for living there.
I feel like immigrating as a refugee is similar to adoption: it’s only a backup plan for when there are no other options. There may be a type of joy in the new start, but no matter how great, that new joy will never remove the old trauma and pain. The dreams of "what might have been" will always be unfulfilled. Even though there are new possibilities on the horizon, much grieving and mourning are appropriate for the losses experienced.
When we arrived in Amsterdam, the group had extra security checks, so they were not on my flight to Atlanta. I do wish I could have been present when they landed in the US, but I don’t know if I could have survived that with any semblance of composure. And if that is how I felt as a mere observer, I can’t imagine the intense mix of emotions each of the refugees must have been experiencing.
|Sunrise through the window at my gate at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol as I waited to board that blue plane for my next flight to Atlanta.|
Please join me in praying for them: that God would meet them in their sadness and also in their joy, that they would see Him through His people that He will put in their paths, for the gospel to be shared with them and for salvation for many, for true and eternal friendships to form with Americans who will love and help and appreciate and learn from their experiences and wisdom, for ease of adjustment, for peace in the days to come, that they’ll be able to *stay warm* (yes, that’s a real issue even for those of us returning to America - we get so stinkin’ cold!), that they will be able to hold on to comforting traditions and as many of their own ways of doing things as possible, that they will be able to be a blessing to those around them... and that they will see and be reassured that they, too, have much to offer America.
I was in such desperate need of that trip back to my people and my homeland - even for a brief visit - and I can't imagine knowing I would never ever be able to do that again: never to see the ones I love, never to have the feeling of being "at home". I'm thankful God had much more planned for my trip than I ever dreamed and opened my heart even more to His love for all people.
If you’d like to join me in praying for refugees during this season, but aren’t really sure how to pray, The Immigration Project has a wonderful prayer calendar resource with a short but important prayer focus for each day through Dec. 25th.