Friday Night Feature: World Relief

I was watching a documentary called “God Grew Tired of Us.” (A MUST see!!) Winner of the Sundance Film Festival in 2006, the film follows the journey of three Sudanese refugees (Panther Bior, John Bul Dau, & Daniel Abul Pach), as they relocate to the United States.

{view film trailer}

Brief Overview: According to the film, in 1987, the northern, Arab backed government of Sudan sanctioned a military edict to kill all first-born males in southern-Sudan–regardless of age. Two million people died in this genocide. To escape death, tens of thousands of of boys, ages 3 – 12, fled Sudan to survive. They became known as “the lost boys” wandering first to Ethiopia, then resettling in Kenya. Today, 86,000 Sudanese refugees call the U.N. Refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya “home.”

Watching Panther, Daniel, and John adjust to life in America after surviving fifteen years in a sparse, remote, refugee camp, was at times, humorous. For example, one mentions he has never used electricity before and is unsure if he will be able to do so. Another applied shaving cream as a lotion for his skin. On a surface level, these and many other simple, cultural faux-pas made for some laughable moments in the film, however, it is the weight of the socio-emotional adjustments that pulled me in.

Journeying to a new country is hard. Period. Panther, Daniel, and John communicate frequently feeling isolated and lonely, not to mention the gnawing disconnection from Sudanese culture and homeland traditions, family, and friends. All three expressed guilt over leaving friends behind, frustration with the individualistic nature of American culture, and a growing desire to want to help those left behind.

Ok, so how does all of this relate to World Relief? Hang on two minutes and I’ll get there.

It is clear from the film that the agency sponsoring the relocation of these Sudanese refugees provided a helper, of sorts, to assist in the adjustment during the first few months following their arrival in the States. Someone takes them grocery shopping, helps them apply for a social security card, assists them in finding employment and walks them through the features–and uses–of everything within their apartment. I wondered, though, if the agency assisting these men connected them–partnered them–with volunteers who walked alongside them as they adapted to the nuances of life in America.

At one point in the film, Daniel, I think, comments that he has “so many questions to ask but few people to answer them.” He continues to express frustration with how difficult it is to break into American culture.

“In the U.S., people are not friendly. You can find somebody that’s walking in the street by himself, [you] don’t even talk. You cannot go to the house of somebody you don’t know, though you are all Americans because they call the police and say ‘I don’t know him.’ In my country, [we can] ask: ‘Have you got lost?’ ‘Are you new to this place?’ They can ask you that and you can say ‘I’m new to this place,’ and they can show you where you are. You can even talk with them.

It is important for us to ask how do people work here, in America, how do people feel when you ask somebody, ‘can you show me the way?’. That’s difficult [because here] you cannot even ask them because these are different people. It’s really difficult. How are we going to be acquainted with this life here? It’s a great shame, actually.”

At this point, my heart broke for them and for the support they lacked during their transition. And this lead me to think of World Relief–because they work hard to fill this gap!

Operating worldwide, World Relief is a humanitarian-based organization working to address and alleviate many of the social, economic, and health-related ills associated with poverty around the world.

The capacity in which I am familiar with World Relief is through their work with refugees. Through an extensive network of churches, non-profits, and government agencies, World Relief provides a myriad of services to resettle and assist refugees as they begin life anew in the States. To help ease the transition, and provide social support, it is a commitment of World Relief to locate a Friendship Partner for each refugee/family as they resettle. More than helping to bridge cultural expectations, Friendship Partners make a yearlong commitment to befriend refugees as they settle into American culture.

My husband and I have experienced the pleasure of working with a refugee couple, from Burma, for the last three years. In an effort to help them become self-sufficient, we have assisted them with everything from grocery shopping, to opening a bank account, to locating employment, to navigating the healthcare system, to finding housing. We try to explain the nuances of American culture and the expectations associated with living and working in America. But all of our efforts pale in comparison to all that we receive as we simply get to know our Burmese friends, over time.

The magic at work behind World Relief’s Friendship Partner program is the friendships that develop as a result. Sure, at first it can be awkward, realistically there are many barriers to overcome: language, cultural differences, gender roles, dietary variations, religious beliefs, etc. But at our core, people are people are people. There is much more that unites us in life than divides us, and this truth becomes more and more apparent as our relationship continues to grow with our Burmese friends. We have cried together in times of loss and pain, and cheered and hugged in times of accomplishment. We participated in the birth of their first son. We’ve shared stories of our countries’ development and political background, and have come to learn the unimaginable horrors and difficulties experienced in life as a refugee. We have also watched, with great joy and amazement, the ways in which God has provided, consistently, in their lives, and we are humbled that we have been invited to play a part in their story of renewal.

If you have yet to connect with World Relief, you must, and should, and should do so right now!

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