Sitting in a small hospital ICU room for several hours with one of my favorite refugee clients, I was able to spend time with her Congolese family of supporters. I often have to remind new volunteers to “expect the unexpected” as they serve others and this day, for me, was no different. The 24 year old young adult girl struggling with a life threatening AVM brain condition is about the same age as my own daughter. My heart is full with emotion for not only her, but also her mother, father, siblings and extended family who so love her. I, and our Asha’s Refuge volunteers, have worked with her whole family for quite some time. We have become friends, have grown to respect them and we just love this family a lot. The family is pretty large. Most of the family does not speak fluent English, but speak enough broken English and have good charades skills that helps us to communicate surprisingly well. I’ve always noticed that when one has a sincere heart to help another person, there is not much that can stand in the way of showing them that you care and want to help.
This particular afternoon, the family introduced me to their cousin, Vivian, who had recently moved to Memphis, TN from California. Vivian came into our Asha’s Refuge office a couple of months before seeking assistance with some documentation and other services, but I did not realize she was the cousin of the girl I was helping in the hospital. Vivian is 23 and speaks fluent English. Her family and I were excited to have her there to help us translate any concerns we had with the medical staff. I
t was nice to get to communicate things more easily with her help. Vivian encouraged me and solidified the fact that I was actually communicating effectively with the family even though we had some language barriers. Yay God!
Vivian and I engaged in a conversation in the hospital really quickly. There was something about her that intrigued me and let me know that she had a similar heart to help others. Vivian was able to express her sincere appreciation to me for helping her cousin acknowledging to me that “Americans in general were such kind and helpful people.” I thanked her for thanking me and allowing me to be a part of assisting her family and community. The more Vivian spoke to me, the more I enjoyed learning about her family and her Congolese culture.
Vivian proceeded to tell me about a time, back when she was in the refugee camp, that an American band came to entertain the refugee people. She was not sure why they came but said that they were so nice. Vivian invited the band and some of the band’s American friends to visit her home in the camp and, to her surprise, they did! The roof of her mud home was leaking water. The water that puddled and sat in her home from the leaky roof was unclean and encouraged the mosquitos dangerously raising a risk to her family for diseases. The group of Americans took the initiative to fund and repair the roof on Vivian’s home. But, they did not stop there with their heart to help Vivian. The group bought food, books and other needed supplies for her family. They also paid for her and her sibling’s school tuition so that they could go to school. Vivian was forever grateful. She told me that she wished that she could find these American people now that she had made it to America. She wanted to thank them again and let them know she had made it to the US safely. With a sad face, Vivian said she could not remember the name of the band or the people. She said there was no way she could possibly find them. Vivian did, however, keep a few pictures of the American people that helped her in the Gihembe Refugee camp. She showed me the pictures:
I carefully inspected her phone pictures to see if I might recognize the American band. I noticed that the Americans were all wearing the same T-shirt. I enlarged the picture focusing in on the T-shirts. “Vivian,” I said with excitement. “They are all wearing the same T-shirt and the T-shirts say ‘Nothing But Nets’ on them. We just might be able to find them!”
“Do you think we really can find them?” Vivian exclaimed.
“Yes. I bet I can help you to locate them. I am going to try!”
Vivian was ecstatic and was so hopeful that I would be able to help her locate the American people that came to help her family when they were struggling so hard in the refugee camp. She very much wanted to thank them again and tell them that she had gotten to come to resettle in America!
Over the first several months that I worked with Vivian, I learned more about the many challenges she was facing as she was trying to successfully start her life anew in the US. Her challenges were similar to many other young adult refugees who enter in to American cities hoping to quickly resettle. Vivian’s story reminded me how important it is for me to press in and work even harder towards reaching our Asha’s Refuge ultimate vision of “A Place of Hope”. Our Asha’s Next Generation (also the name of the division under Asha’s Refuge that seeks to work with refugee teens to about 26 years old) desperately needs us to press forward. The easiest way to describe our “Place of Hope” vision is to get one to imagine a very small community college that offers dorm like housing, a basic education, English by emersion, job, computer and life skills, personal finance, driver’s education, counseling, workshops for men, a fishing lake, arts and crafts, choir/music lessons and community engagement all while exhibiting Christ like acceptance, encouragement and love to those refugees in need of these services.
The more time that I was able to get to know and speak to Vivian the more interested in her story that I became and the more I realized she would be greatly benefit by and be a perfect candidate for an Intern Scholarship opportunity with Asha’s Refuge. My heart kind of sank, knowing that while our programs and services were helping hundreds of refugees in the city of Memphis, we still had much work to accomplish for the generation of refugee teens and young adults like Vivian. The organization has progressed well over the past few years. What is holding us back the most at this time is having adequate funding to fuel our organizations dreams which help to fulfill the dreams of many of our clients. As I continued working to assist Vivian and other refugee clients like her, I determined in my heart to press onward trusting that God would guide me as I go and continue to provide for the needs that arose just as He always had proven.
Vivian and I continued to regularly converse about the seriousness of her cousins medical condition with the rest of her family. Many people have been praying for her cousin. We are happy to say that her cousin has improved and, while she will still face several challenges and upcoming necessary hard procedures, she is currently home recovering from previous hospital emergency procedures.
I researched the Nothing But Nets organization for Vivian. I was so happy to call her and get to tell her that I had figured out who they were and would be working on trying to find the actual people in the picture who visited her camp. The organization is a division of United Nations that has a target focus to provide mosquito nets to areas of poverty facing the reality of Malaria. The website did not easily link to anyone with the organization to contact. I located one email contact with the organization and it bounced back to me telling me that person was no longer with the organization and that I should email another person. I emailed the other person and they did not respond. My coworker and friend suggested I see if Nothing But Nets had a Facebook page. They did! I messaged the organization through the Facebook page and attached the photos that Vivian gave to me. Someone quickly responded with excitement and encouraged me to contact the executive director of Nothing But Nets and gave me her contact information. And so, I did.
Margaret McDonnel with Nothing But Nets emailed me back and copied a few others in her reply. She too was so excited and appreciative of Vivian seeking to find them to thank them. Margaret knew exactly who the people in the photo were and that is who she copied in her email back to me. One of the gentlemen’s names is Chris Helfrich and he was the previous Nothing But Nets Executive Director. He is now working to help children who are hospitalized have a happier experience even though they are dealing with their illnesses in a hospital. Chris is the CEO of Starlight Children’s Foundation. He replied to Margaret’s email. Chris’s reply was truly heartfelt. He remembered Vivian and had frequently thought about his experience in the refugee camp with her, her family and the other families. He knew who the band was that Vivian was talking about. He said that one of the other gentleman in the picture was Taylor Goldsmith with the Dawes band who was about to marry Hollywood’s Mandy Moore. Taylor remembered Vivian too and said he, too, kept thinking about her and wondered often how she was doing. I was happy to hear back from this team of American people who helped Vivian’s family and eager to get back to Vivian to tell her I had not only found them, I was in conversation with them.
So, five or six years ago, Chris Helfrich with the Nothing But Nets organization (at that time) partnered with the Dawes band to take a trip to sub-Sahara Africa to deliver mosquito nets to families in the Gihembe refugee camp where Vivian’s family was living and needed them. Chris and his wife, Kate Helfrich (product development director of Sephora makeup), have spoken to Vivian and enjoy keeping up with one another via text and Face-time. They are eager for the day that they can meet in person again and continue to build their friendship. Chris and Kate, however, feel like there is so much more that he can do to try and continue helping Vivian and her family. The more they learn about the myriad of challenges that Vivian and her family face with their resettlement process, the more they want to try and figure out the best ways to help her.
Asha’s Refuge has a heart to help Vivian tell her personal story which we believe will also help others to better understand the various challenges many refugees her age face as they seek to resettle in our American cities. Because of Vivian’s ability to express herself with such strong English details, we as American citizens can get a true hearts sense of what her experience in the refugee camp and after is actually like. Vivian wants to speak out about what she knows and what her personal experiences have been in order to speak out the truth, raise awareness, promote change and stop the atrocities. Asha’s Refuge is currently working with Vivian to pull together a video interview which will hopefully be the best way for her to express to us what is on her heart.
In the meantime, Vivian wants to thank the many people that have already learned some of her story and have taken an interest in her well-being. She appreciates everyone’s prayers and heartfelt desires to see her and her family move through their resettlement in the US with success. We have worked with Vivian to give her supporters a brief, incomplete, story to help with understanding her current situation. Here is that story:
Vivian is a single mother of one son blessed with a mother who helps her to care for her son. The father of Vivian’s son is unknown as Vivian was sexually assaulted in Rwanda and did not know her perpetrator. Her mother, son and siblings currently live in San Diego, California while Vivian now lives in Memphis, Tennessee with her extended family. Her whole family has refugee status and are seeking a successful resettlement in the US.
Vivian came to Memphis seeking job support and assistance from her extended family and then to Asha’s Refuge for assistance by recommendation of her family March 2018. Being the oldest in her family, she feels the responsibility of helping provide financially for her mother, six siblings and son though she was not given an opportunity in the refugee camp to complete her High School Diploma.
Vivian dearly loves and respects her mother who she says is truly brave, has a strong relationship with Jesus and has a much better story than hers and one that really needs to be told. Her mother was in a car wreck and is recovering from that. Her physical inability to work right now and the medical bills have added to the financial strain she was already in. Vivian currently tries to send $500 per month to help her mother, son and siblings financially.
Vivian’s father passed away in Africa when Vivian was about 8 years old while serving in the military. She remembers her father eating bread and drinking a soda with her while she and her sister sat on his knees listening to him tell them that he must go away for a while to fight in the military. Vivian saw her father as a brave man and one of many who tried to stand up for the rights of civilians.
Vivian has a grandmother who is still in Africa in Rwanda’s Gihembe Refugee Camp who is waiting to get to come to America. She is struggling to find food for herself which worries Vivian and her mother Kessie. The Rwandan military and government is corrupt and poses danger to desperate refugees who are looking for food, jobs, and an education for their children and other survival needs. Vivian sends $20 to help feed her grandmother for a week via Western Union.
The violence and shooting situation from the Rwandan military has been frightening to Vivian’s family and to innocent Congolese refugees. The problem has greatly affected Vivian, her mother and grandmother after their loss of Vivian’s brother in February. The beginning of May, Vivian’s cousin was also shot in what she says was a Rwandan military raid. Vivian is frustrated that the news and media are not accurately covering the story that the Congolese Refugees are experiencing. She is haunted by the number of refugee friends and family that call her crying sending her photo after photo of their deceased loved ones.
Vivian loves Jesus and is passionate about showing others hope and Christ-like love. She wants to take action by using her natural gift of speaking several languages with poise and clarity to speak out about what is actually going on in some of the refugee camps today. She wants to speak out about what it is really like to try and resettle in a new country as a refugee with a lack of education and life skills. Vivian also wants to get into American schools and churches to thank them for their helping hearts but also talk to American people about the things she thinks would help them if they better understood. Her quote to us below might give an idea of what kinds of things Vivian wants to talk to Americans about:
“If you are going to take me out to spend $50 on a meal for 1 hour, I’m going to tell you, ‘No thank you’. I would rather send that $50 to my mom and siblings in Africa who have no food to feed them for a week and then go home and cook the food I already have at home for myself. If I cannot feed my mom and siblings in Africa, then I cannot eat myself. I don’t even feel hungry myself if they are hungry.” -Vivian
There really are ways that we can come together to help Vivian and her family. Vivian would like to get her High School diploma and take advantage of any opportunity to make friends with the American people so that she can learn more about our culture, American systems, job skills and life skills. Vivian wants to get her driver’s education and a promising job that will allow her opportunities to grow, help others, support herself without government assistance and also help her family. She and her family have immediate needs such as toiletries, shoes, school supplies and financial assistance. The connections that Vivian made through Nothing but Nets while she was in the refugee camp has uniquely opened up a possibility for her to share her story to a wider audience, connect to programs, resources and people who are willing to help her. Asha’s Refuge has a heart to help Vivian succeed. Vivian is only one of the many young adults in our Next Generation age group whom Asha’s Refuge seeks to assist.
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