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In my work with refugees, I hear their stories and listen to them share about the horrendous things they endured. They survive atrocities that most of us cannot imagine. Hearing their stories evokes emotions such as anger at the perpetrators, but the two emotions that are predominant are compassion and sadness. Sadness comes from empathy as I listen to their stories of loss and grief. Compassion comes from God filling my heart with love for them.

Today, August 3rd, marks the 3rd anniversary of the most recent genocide against the Yazidi people. A band of thugs forced their way into Iraq and targeted those who were from different religions for genocide. The two main targets were the Yazidi people and the Christians. Today is a sad day in that it commemorates the death and suffering of thousands of people.

In June 2016, I read a book They Say We Are Infidels by Mindy Belz. In the book she documents the atrocities Christians faced through the years including when the band of thugs came in 2014. She also shared about the Yazidi people. When I read the book, I thought about my Yazidi friends here in Lincoln and began to pray for them. As I prayed one morning, I felt a wave of compassion flood my heart and soul for the Yazidi people. It was as if Jesus was asking me to love them for him. The person who loved us so much that he gave his life for us, Jesus, was asking me to love the victims of the genocide.

In July 2016, in one of my evening classes, I had three Yazidi students. I had had Yazidi students before in my classes and enjoyed teaching them and enjoyed their friendship. But something changed for me in the summer of 2016. Since that time, I have been in their homes, I have listened to them, I have prayed for them, I have felt the love Jesus has for them. Now it is seems as if my savior Jesus, has me showing his love to they who suffered so much loss.

Visiting them in their homes, sharing with them, eating with them, and trying to help them with their new lives in America, have been wonderful experiences for me, profound and yet at times so terribly sad. I have found the Yazidi people to be fun, peace loving, family oriented, and friendly people. It is hard for me to understand why someone would seek to harm them. Such atrocities speak to the evil that can come from the hearts of people. The only response I can think of is to love my Yazidi friends and try to help them with their new lives in America.

It makes me think of Jesus in Matthew 9 where it records,  “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Jesus was filled with overwhelming compassion when he saw the people suffering. How can I not also be filled with compassion for my Yazidi friends who suffered so much. Compassion is the response that floods every fiber of my being when I spend time with my Yazidi friends.

In my morning Newcomer Refugee class, I currently have a student from Burma, one of The Karen People, and some Yazidi students. They all came here as refugees seeking freedom and safety. Yesterday we talked about the 4th of July and what it means. They all understood the word Freedom.

For my Karen student, freedom means not worrying about the military dictatorship that took over Burma which caused her parents to flee to a refugee camp in Thailand. My student was born in the refugee camp and has never seen her native homeland.

For my Yazidi students, freedom means being safe from the murderous criminals who were committing genocide. It also means they are free to practice their religion without being oppressed or discriminated against.

Freedom is so precious and yet taken for granted by us Americans. We do not have to worry about government troops or police coming into our churches to arrest us, not yet anyway. We are free to practice our faith or to not practice any faith. We do not have people with weapons pointed at us telling us what we must be.

I appreciate my freedom here in America. There is another freedom I look forward to even more than the freedom I have here. It is the freedom from the effects of sin in this world. For now my citizenship is U.S. citizenship. The day will come that either I die or Jesus comes back for us that I will more fully realize what the bible says- “but our citizenship is in heaven.” Only by God’s grace, I have been granted citizenship in heaven. I do not deserve it.

As I help refugees and immigrants here in my hometown, I am constantly mindful that I have dual citizenship- U.S. and heavenly. My desire is to help my newcomer friends with their new lives here in America. My desire is to also show them the love of God, whether it be in ways such as joining them for a meal, listening to them, or teaching them English. I realize that each day I can help them in a much bigger way that is not seen. I can pray for them. I can pray for them because in God’s grace, I have been granted citizenship in heaven and with that comes the birth right to talk to God anytime.

Tuesday evening I had the privilege of visiting a Yazidi family and having dinner with them in their home. I mostly talked with a brother and sister over dinner for about an hour. I have found the best way to get to know my refugee friends is to visit them in their homes and spend time with them listening, sharing, and letting them teach me about their cultures. Our conversation Tuesday evening meant a lot to me as we talked about them building their new lives here in America.

Building new lives can be a daunting task. My refugee friends leave behind their homes, their careers, their friends, and family. Basically they lose everything in their lives when they flee to a refugee camp and then they lose what little they have in the camp to come here. The emotions they experience is a mixed bag of excitement when they first come, happy to be safe, sad to leave behind those they love, grieving who and what they have lost, fear of their unknown future here and feeling lost here. They come to their new country and are faced with learning a new language, a new culture, and building new lives and careers.

As we talked Tuesday evening, the brother expressed his sadness over losing his dream of becoming a lawyer. He had to leave school behind when they fled the murderous thugs who came into their area. I shared with him that feeling sad is normal and that I would be concerned if he was not sad over what he had lost. Depression and sadness over losing so much is a normal response to an absolutely abnormal situation. He told me, “I lost my dream.”

When he said that, it caused me to think about when I left the university in Minneapolis in 1994, not even finishing the semester, to come back to Lincoln. At that time my dream of becoming a pastor seemed to end. It seemed that I would die soon due to my health being so bad. I went through over a year more of getting worse and then a year of recovering and relearning things as I recovered. I felt my dream had ended. It did not end however, it took a different path. Now I teach English and am in part-time ministry. It was from my life experience that I shared with him a thought in hopes it would help him.

Your Dream Did Not End. It Is On A Different Path.

It is at moments like these that I am reminded of how Jesus was made complete by his suffering. How could Jesus who has always been perfect be made complete? Because when he suffered in this life things such as the death of his earthly step-father Joseph, being hungry, being rejected, being falsely accused, and physical pain and death, he became our sympathetic high priest who is able to sympathize with us in our weaknesses, so we can come to him with confidence.

It may sound strange to you, but I am grateful I went through my own suffering because I can draw from that experience as I share and spend time with my refugee friends.

For my new friend, I shared with him about how I had to rebuild my life and that my dream went through a new and different path. We talked about some steps he can take for his dream  to take a different path here. We talked about many other aspects of his new life here in America. I hope to visit them again and join him and his sister on their new path to their dreams here in America.

So my recent birthday had me getting a bit reflective about my life. I think it is because I have more birthdays behind me than I do in front of me. It was kind of a taking stock of my life moment.

As I reflected on my life, I kept having thoughts of- IF ONLY I HADN’T or IF ONLY I HAD. You know- MISTAKES. If only I hadn’t made that mistake. If only I hadn’t sinned in that way. If only I had made a different decision. If only I had gone a different way in life.

Those were accompanied by the I wishes. I wish I had kept that job and not gone to bible college in the 1990s. I wish I had had different parents. The I wishes kept flooding in.

Then as I prayed, I was reminded of Romans 8:28- For God causes all things to work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to his purposes. God can work everything together. That includes my mistakes, my sins, my struggles, and the disappointments in life. It does not only include my successes and abilities. Each step of the journey is included in the all things.

As I reflected on Romans 8:28, I had one answer to all of the if onlys and all of the I wishes. The answer was BUT THEN. It all came down to BUT THEN, I would not have met all of these wonderful refugees and immigrants. I would not have been able to share God’s love with people from literally all over the world. Example- If only I had kept my position as a sales rep selling office furniture, I would be much better off, BUT THEN I would not have met my friends from all over the world.

Basically, I realize that my life’s journey led me to the point of being able to help and be friends with people from Brazil, Burma, China, Mexico, Vietnam, Iraq and many other countries. I have had so many opportunities to share the love of Jesus with people from all over the world. I hope to have many more years of being able to share God’s love with refugees and immigrants.

On Sunday I had the privilege of having dinner with some of my Yazidi friends. I always enjoy visiting them and getting to know them better. I have learned from them as much as they have learned from me. During this visit, it was an emotional time as we talked about some various things they have experienced. One of the sisters was crying and seemed to try to hide it, so I asked her to look me in the eyes as I shared with her, “You are a person. Your feelings are important because you are a person.” I had her repeat with me, I am a person. My feelings are important.

A sense of personhood and personal dignity are two important parts of our identity that are stripped away while living under oppression and trying to survive genocide. My Yazidi friends experienced something I have seen other refugees experience whether they are Burmese, Sudanese, Congolese, or any other refugee group. That is the experience of a government, terror group, or dictatorship denying fundamental human rights, killing loved ones and friends, stealing and or destroying property and personal belongings. Suffering through severe oppression leaves scars not only physically but also emotionally and psychologically.

I saw my friend again today and it was good to see her smiling, but I always want her to feel she can be open and honest about her feelings. I respect her and try to treat her with respect. My desire is for her to have a beautiful future full of love and meaning.

As a Christian, I am called upon by my Lord to bear the burdens of others. That means being a listening ear. That means showing care and concern. It also means speaking words of healing to those who have been oppressed. It makes me think of how in the bible it says of Jesus, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” For those who are bruised and battered from oppression, my desire is to be a healing influence in their lives.

Last night I had the pleasure of having dinner with two new families from Iraq. They are Yazidi people who survived the genocide and lived in a refugee camp after suffering tremendous loss in their lives. For the purpose of this writing, I will refer to the group that perpetrated the genocide as the criminals not with the name they claim because criminals is a much better fit.

When the criminals came and perpetrated genocide against them, it included loss of their homes, loss of their livelihoods, and worst of all loss of loved ones and friends who were taken away and killed. The grief is unimaginable for us to comprehend. It is difficult for us Americans to wrap our brains around, to grasp, being targeted for genocide simply because of having a different religion.

Last night after we ate, they showed me pictures of their homes in Iraq and of friends and family.  As we looked at the pictures, they would pause at some of the pictures and share with me that the criminals took them. I understood right away what they meant. Their friend or loved one was taken away and killed. If the loved one was a woman or girl, it means facing the horrors of forced marriage and sexual abuse. Such grief and loss can be crippling emotionally and psychologically.

I shared with them a simple message I have shared many times over the years with refugees from many other countries. The message I shared was- Building Your New Life Here Will Honor Them. What I mean by that message is that my friends are safe here and they can build a new life. Their children can go to school here where their religion is not a factor. They and their children can have new lives and a future. By doing so, they can honor their lost loved ones and friends.

My desire is to show my friends the love of Jesus. Three simple words Jesus taught have profound meaning to me. Jesus said, “God is love.” Paul wrote in the in the bible in 1st Corinthians 13:13, “And now these three remains, faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.” Being friends with my dear refugee friends has meant a lot to me over the years. My desire is to show them the love Jesus spoke of.

Showing such love many times starts with actually listening. Taking time to listen as they share their life stories. I do not have a magic wand that can erase the horrors they faced or the loss the have suffered. I wish I did. However, I can listen and be their friend. I can help them with understanding some of their new lives here in America. By helping them in small ways to build their new lives here, I help them to honor those they lost. We who are Christians are called upon by God to bear the burdens of others. I try to bear the burdens of my refugee friends.

This week I began substitute teaching an English class for newcomer refugees for the summer. I taught the same class last summer. It is completely different to teach newcomer refugees English and in many ways it is an honor and a privilege. They come from a refugee camp and in a matter of days or hours, life as they knew changes literally overnight.

They come from a camp where life is a struggle. There can be a lack of medical care, adequate housing and life’s necessities. Also uncertainty and loss of hope surrounds them. In the camp the best they can hope for is to be safe from those who would harm them and to come to a new country as soon as they can. There is no going back to where they fled from because the dangers are great.

When they leave the camp to come to America and more specifically my hometown Lincoln, they come literally not knowing anything about their new life here. That presents an honor and privilege, but also a responsibility on the part of those who seek to help them.

For me it is a tremendous honor to help them as they experience the first weeks of their new lives in America. I take it quite seriously, so I begin my day at home praying and asking God to help me to help them and to show them God’s love by helping them with English and to understand some basics about life here in Lincoln.

This week we only had three days together in my first week with them. We did things such as walk outside the building, so I could show them O Street the main street in my city and the street the building is on. I used O street to help them understand north and south for addresses. We talked about other practical things, but there is something deeper that happens.

I am their first person to have contact with on a regular basis as they try to start their new lives. It means being in tune with my students and observing them to see how they are doing when they come into class. The stress they are under is tremendous as they try to adjust to a new city and a new culture that is pervasively surrounding them 24/7. This morning was an example of what I am talking about.

This morning I noticed one of the students, a young Yazidi woman, looked somewhat sad to me. She told me she had a headache, so I accepted that explanation knowing more might come out and it did. Later she shared that she felt sad because it was her last day in the class since next week she will go on to the next class. Attachments form quickly for them in the first month. In a way it is almost like rubbing salt in the wound by having them experience another change so suddenly. We talked about how I am her friend. We talked about me meeting her brother and grandmother who she lives with. She asked if she could have a  picture with me and I said sure. She has a picture with me now. By the end of class, she was able to smile and we shook hands. I reminded her I am her friend and told her if she and her brother need help to understand life here to let me know.

Compassion is not only in big grand gestures and or great efforts. I am thankful for those, but compassion is also in the little moments. Compassion is in taking the time to understand the plight of others. Compassion is found in listening. Compassion is even in letting someone take a picture because they are afraid they will not see you again. That is a completely understandable fear for refugees who have lost loved ones to violence and who have left people behind in refugee camps.

One thing about having the compassion in our hearts that Jesus had and has, it compels us to action. If I truly have compassion for the plight of others, it will compel to put that compassion into action.