Praying with Refugees
When I started to teach writing in a summer program for refugee kids, I discovered how much they have to teach me about praying in the Spirit. Many of these kids spent their early childhood years in African refugee camps, where most people speak at least three languages, but don’t get to learn much reading and writing. So the summer-school class was mostly talking and drawing and—to my delight, singing.
When I asked them to tell stories about their favorite celebrations, two students drew pictures of people praying: Placide, from Rwanda, drew a man in his Sunday best, holding a book with both hands—the Holy Bible, he told us. “It is Pentecost Day, the day that Jesus’ disciples went into the church and prayed, and then the Holy Ghost came into them.”
A Congolese kid also drew a man in a suit and tie, but this one is kneeling in a mosque. It is the morning of Eid, the feast to celebrate the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, and the man is singing.
“What is he singing?” I asked.
“Poems,” the boy told us, and then began to say something in Arabic that sounded like Qur’an.
“Sura,” his sister Laila jumped in, and then began to chant the verse he was trying to say.
I asked Laila how she learned to chant Qur’an. In a refugee camp in Uganda, she told us.
Laila, whose name means night in Arabic, whose father named her Laila because she was born during Ramadan, when night is a special time. One of the summer-school teachers, a refugee herself from Iraq, told us non-Muslims about leilat al qadr: a night, during the last 10 days of Ramadan, when it is said that all the doors of heaven are open: If you want something so much, pray during these 10 days.
After Laila’s father died in Kampala, she stayed up at night praying he would go to heaven.
I take my greatest prayers to the top of East Rock Park. I hike up the white trail and stop to pray under a tree, a big weeping beech where I feel peace.
One day I asked my summer-school students to tell the class about trees in the countries they came from. I thought maybe I’d hear about the wonders of the baobab tree—how they provide shelter and shade, a resting place for crested cranes.
But one of the boys talked about a dangerous tree with sap like glue—if you touch it, your fingers can get stuck together; you can go blind. Trees are scary, he told us, especially when you’re walking at night by water, and you hear something moving. You’re so scared it’s a crocodile or a snake.
“Or the people who jump down from the trees with machetes,” a Rwandan kid chimed in. Others started talking all at once, telling the terrors they’ve seen: a witch who poisoned a pastor, a river of bodies, people with demons.
I hadn’t imagined that something so beautiful and serene to me—trees—could be so terrifying to these kids. And I don’t want to believe they’ve seen witches and demons. But they have seen what seem to be cosmic powers of darkness.
These kids were speaking Ephesians to me: People who poison and hack with machetes, faces contorted like demons, are too dark, too terrible to be just “blood and flesh.”
The terrors these kids have seen—armies who raid refugee camps for grain and child soldiers—must come from forces of evil beyond human capacity. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:13)
I asked the kids, “What did you do with all these scary things around you? And when you remember these things. What do you do to feel peace?”
“You carry the Bible,” Placide told me.
“You say ‘In the name of Jesus Christ!’”
“You pray to God,” Laila’s brother said.
“What do you pray?” I asked.
“God protect my family. Give us good dreams. Let your shadow be over us.”
Again, they were speaking Ephesians. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:18) These kids who put on the word of God for protection, who pray in the Spirit, who speak life to genocide. I realized, my under-a-tree retreats from traffic and the internet—though good for the soul, are a passive way of seeking peace.
As I heard these kids proclaim the good news that God is our refuge, I realized, peace is not a retreat, but a struggle. Peace is hard work that requires more than you have. Sometimes your only and strongest weapon is vigilance in prayer, fierce hope in the Lord.
My greatest teachers in the fierceness of peace have been grown-up refugee kids. People who keep astonishing me with the ways they have to keep struggling, even and long after they’ve gotten out of war zones. I know an Eritrean man with a mental illness that seems too cruel to be a matter of brain chemistry. Every Sunday he’s not in the psych hospital, he goes to church to pray that God calm his mind.
When I started working for IRIS, New Haven’s refugee resettlement agency, I met James, a young man from South Sudan.
James was one of the 26,000 children who fled civil war in Sudan. They walked over a thousand miles to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya.
Less than half of the kids survived.
When I met James, he was applying to grad school and volunteering with IRIS to set up apartments for newly arriving refugees. He became fast friends with a young man named Ibrahim, a new arrival from Darfur.
James and Ibrahim probably would never have met, much less become friends, in Sudan: Their home regions are far apart; they are from different tribes; James is Christian, and Ibrahim is Muslim. But they became like family to one another in New Haven: James would help Ibrahim with his English homework, and Ibrahim would cook Sudanese food for them to eat together. For a treat, they’d go out to James’ favorite restaurant: Hometown Buffet, in Milford.
One night, I got a text from James saying Ibrahim has had an accident; he’s in the hospital. I’d seen the ambulance outside the IRIS office; someone on a stretcher. I had no idea it was Ibrahim. He’d been hit by a car, while he was running across the street to catch a bus to his second English class of the day.
When James and I arrived at the E.R., we asked where we could find Ibrahim. “He’s in ICU,” the attendant told us. “There are so many people from his country here, and so many from your organization. They’re in the Family Room.”
The waiting room was packed with IRIS staff members, refugees from Sudan and Iraq, the owner of the Blue Nile clothing store, where Ibrahim must have shopped. That night, he was in a coma. The doctors didn’t know if he would survive—they were watching for any signs of a blood clot to the brain. Even if he made it through this critical period, he may never wake up. And if he did, he may be brain dead; he may never walk again.
All of this at an already awful time for James: His hometown Bor had just been massacred; more of his relatives died; Bor was burned to ashes.
I don’t want to believe that there are cosmic powers of darkness, but Ibrahim’s accident, just after the Bor massacre, felt like a cosmic punch in the gut, even to me, who is privileged to witness the gospel of peace unfolding in this refugee friend family.
An ICU chaplain told us we could go in to visit in groups of two or three. James and I went in, and he started talking to Ibrahim in Arabic. I couldn’t understand what he was saying—except one phrase, rabinna maek, “our Lord is with you.”
A few weeks later, Ibrahim opened his eyes. A few months later, he began to walk again—at first, a few steps down the hospital hall, with a cane in one hand and James by his side.
As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. (Ephesians 6:15)
For the months of Ibrahim’s slow recovery, all he could put on was a hospital gown and no-skid socks. I don’t know if James had anything for his feet as a child, walking a thousand miles out of Sudan—sometimes bandits would steal shoes from war orphans.
How do James and Ibrahim proclaim the good news of peace, with all the bad news that keeps happening in Sudan? Step by labored step, they encourage one another: “our Lord is with you.”
Ibrahim recovered so well he did a 5k Run for Refugees in February. He’s back to his English classes at New Haven Adult Education. He’s working, this very morning, at the Flea Market on Ella T. Grasso Boulevard.
How do we proclaim the gospel of peace, in a world of massacres and catastrophic accidents? We make friends who are family, like Jesus and his disciples. We say “Our Lord is with you,” and we pray in the Spirit at all times.
Ibrahim told me, when he woke up from the coma, he prayed from the hospital bed, “God, help. God, help. God, help.”
Last week, I was walking across the New Haven Green with Ibrahim. I looked up at one of those great, big sycamore trees that seems to be a gentle giant holding all things in the light.
I said, “I love these trees.”
“Me too!” he said. “But soon it will die.”
He knows how fast the leaves fall.
“I mean, it will look like it is dying,” he told me. “But it is not.
The last time I walked into the summer school room, the kids were talking in African languages and in English. Laila said something in Kinyrwanda.
Espoir, whose name means hope, told her “I’m sorry.”
Laila tried to tell me in English, everything changed when her father died.
“In the war,” Placide told me, “you can have like 17 people in your family, and only two survive.”
Espoir raised his hand to ask: “In America, when someone dies, and you bury them, do you sing a song?”
“Some people do,” I said. “What about in Rwanda?”
Espoir began to sing: Aheza mu iruru…
Placide joined in. This grave song must be an old childhood hymn for them, and all who died. They must have sung it so many times.
Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.