Being a Christian is to be a stranger
Out here in the Ali Addeh Refugee Camp, 60 kilometers from the border of Somalia, where three days ago an attack by al Shabaab terrorists left 15 people dead in the capital Mogadishu, it feels even hotter. I’m here with a group of eight teachers from Lutheran schools, who will train counterparts in the refugee camp’s primary and secondary schools.
As ALWS, we are hoping a grant from the European Commission in the next month will enable us to extend the primary school, where there are 150 children to a classroom, seven to a desk and 120 to a toilet. In doing so, we will give nearly 2,330 children a proper education.
The wheel-barrow ambulance
Near the primary school is the health center where I recorded the temperature.
As I waited in the ‘shade’ for a meeting to finish, I saw two young men pushing a wheelbarrow. In it was a person, completely covered in a blanket, legs hanging over the edge.
When I followed the doctor, I saw this was a teenage student who had collapsed from the heat and the fasting of Ramadan. The doctor inserted a drip. The student’s friends told me they’d brought him from two kilometers away in their makeshift ambulance.
Bullets stop words
Abdifatah is eight years old. I met her when her dad was showing me where he guards the LWF kindergarten. Ahmed was an architect in Mogadishu when the bullets came.
“There was fighting, and we had to leave quickly. There were bullets coming from the street through the windows of our house, so we must run. When the fighting came, my wife was shot. The bullet went through one leg and then out through the other.”
Abdifatah is eight years old but has never spoken. She is the size of a four year old, a head smaller than her six year old brother. Her sister is 10, and she too has not spoken for eight years. That is the trauma conflict causes, the trauma the education we plan to support can help heal.
Fasting and feasting
Djibouti is a Muslim country. So the vast majority of our LWF staff, being local people, is Muslim. In fact, out of 43 national staff, and 110 incentive staff working as teachers, social workers and in child protection, only two people are Christians. They are James, the head of LWF here, and Truphena, both from Kenya.
It is the month of Ramadan. The people fast during the day, from first prayers at 4.30 to sundown prayers. Even though it is 46 or 52 or however many degrees, they don’t drink. Some will not even shower during the whole month of Ramadan in case a drop of water accidentally falls in their mouth. I try to fast in daylight out of respect, but the 46 degrees is vacuuming the energy from me, and so I reach for my muesli bar. It’s melted. But it’s more than anyone else is eating.
As darkness falls, our Muslim LWF colleagues invite us to the breaking of the fast of Ramadan.
A huge tablecloth is laid out on the floor. Individual plates are laid out with meat samosas, fried balls of dough, a dipping sauce, and traditional dates. In the middle of the cloth are plates piled high with all kinds of fruit. Pride of the place are three gigantic cakes, each 50 centimeters in diameter, decorated with the LWF logo laid out in pineapple pieces. Thirty of us sit cross-legged on the floor.
We work out there are 11 languages, nine cultures and 64 children between us - and two religions. Yet sitting here cross-legged, laughing, serving each other, sharing, it seems we are one, working together to serve the refugees who have lost everything.
Later in the evening, two of our teachers are invited to go to the local Djiboutian wedding of one of the LWF drivers.
Two of the young Muslim staff go home and bring back traditional dresses for our teachers. It is like a teenage party with “oohs” and “aahs” and giggles at make-up and dress. Our teachers feel glorious in the amazing colors they have been given, but the ladies who have donated the clothes laugh and confess these are last year’s fashion and ‘so 2015’.
Anxious for nothing
James, leader of LWF in Djibouti, is married to Emmaculate, and proud father to three year old Michael and newborn baby Joy. James’ work commitments mean he may see them only once every two months.
I ask James how he can make the sacrifice of working away from his family, and how he deals with the challenge of living and leading as a Christian. He says,
“God is everywhere, even in the refugee camp. I remember St Paul saying ‘Be anxious for nothing’. He was behind bars in prison when he said that. God knew our world would be evil, so he puts people like us to be there to bring change.”
Whom God calls
This morning we worship with the Caritas team at the dusty church run by Father John, from Cameroon. The mission has been here since 1939. The Caritas team is Father John and three Sisters. The congregation is a family of six, whose four children are the choir, the band, the stewards. Their voices in song are joy that sound alongside the amplified Muslim call to prayer from next door. The only other member is a lady who converted from Islam. Her family rejected her for doing so.
We double the congregation’s number.
When the children sing, and play drum and tambourine, you know God is alive, God is here, even here. When Father John’s deep voice joins the children, there is no way to stop the goose-bumps.
The service is in French, but Father John shares the Gospel and his message in English as well. He talks about Jesus calling Matthew to follow him from his place of work. Then reminds us that Peter, James and John were called from their work too. And when God called Moses, and David, they were both at work tending their sheep.
Father John tells us God calls the industrious. He wants the energy, strength and commitment as shown by those who already work hard.
It makes me think.
So many times we say we are too busy to do more. Or that we have too many bills and financial commitments to give any more. Yet that is exactly when God calls us.
The stranger welcomed
Tomorrow we go back into the refugee camp at Ali Addeh.
As we meet the teachers and students face to face, I will start to imagine the 10 classrooms – God willing – we plan to build, and the 17 latrines. The 500 school desks that will mean students can sit three to a desk, rather than seven. The two water tanks that will deliver 1,200 liters of water for the children per day, compared to the 160 liters of sometimes dirty water carted in by donkey carts today.
In my bag I will carry another muesli bar, my lunch for eight hours in the sun. My muesli bar may melt. But what must not melt is our strength to keep helping where it’s hard. Keep working when the barren rock and dirt and unrelenting heat do their best to scare you away. Where being a Christian is to be the stranger.
As we welcome the stranger, this stranger is welcomed... and in this experience, I’m reminded of all you do to welcome strangers and care for those who are hurting, through ALWS. Thank you.
by Jonathan Krause, ALWS