7 Critical Things I Learned as a Refugee Volunteer

refugee ministry
Cross cultural relationships aren’t neat and tidy. They require flexibility, humility and compromise. I felt this personally in my friendship with Burundian refugees this year. Here’s what I wish I would have known from the beginning. Photo by TEAM

As a missions coach at TEAM, I love getting to walk alongside others who feel called to international ministry. But I was challenged early on by an applicant who asked, “What are you doing in cross-cultural ministry?” A little jarred, I honestly responded, “Great question. I can tell you that right now, I’m not involved.”

That moment launched the past year of befriending and loving refugees in Knoxville, Tennessee.

After that conversation, I did some research and found a local nonprofit agency committed to providing protection and assistance in refugees’ journeys. They set me up as an English tutor for a Burundian family, and the rest is history.

This year has been one of the most rewarding of my life, but it has not come without unique challenges and hard missteps. If I could go back and give myself some advice, here’s what I would say:

Younger Wesley,

You are just a few days away from meeting your new friends about six miles down the street. You’re probably a bit nervous and anxious, as you have no idea what you are doing or how to do it — much less how to communicate that. But I want to share a few things to help you better serve your new friends and save some frustration as you enter this new world.

Your differences are real.

Your experiences are very different. The comfort you have, they have never experienced. The terror they’ve experienced, you have never known. Your definition of an enemy and theirs could not be more opposite. Seek to sit and listen, a lot.

Your similarities are there.

You are both competitive. You both like to be goofy and joke around. You both enjoy home-cooked meals and Frisbee. You like to dance very badly together and make buffoons of yourselves. You, an American, and they, Burundians, are both pure reflections and image-bearers of the King, and a common thread of humanity courses through both of you.

Your awkwardness is evident.

The first couple times you meet, you will feel very awkward, out of place and in the minority. It will be good for you to feel like an outsider, hanging out in a community that looks, laughs and lives differently than you. Seeing the world through another’s eyes will humble you, challenge you to think differently and change the way you pray for and with your new friends.

Naturally, you will have expectations of your friends — and be disappointed when they don’t meet them. Change your expectations. Most of the world doesn’t look like the U.S., and there are some things to be aware of.

Their view of time is different from yours.

Don’t expect them to adapt to your culture merely because they are in your culture. That’s a narrow expectation that will surely disappoint. Try to understand what they mean when they say they will meet you at 4 p.m. Do they mean 4:30? 5:00? 6:00? Try to relate, not correct.

Their keen spiritual awareness is something to embrace.

They are much more in tune with the spiritual realm than your average American. They will talk about demons and angels and warfare as if they can feel them and touch them, probably because they have. Don’t shy away from these conversations, because they will be some of the most honest conversations about God and fear that you will ever hear.

Their method of interaction will be hard for you.

As you seek to probe and ask questions (with the best intentions), know they may not be so apt to share about their tumultuous and terrifying past. Don’t be upset if they turn down conversations, and don’t force them to relive experiences that no one should ever live the first time.

There will be days where you want to throw in the towel, when your self-deprecating jokes do not land or you feel like they aren’t learning English at the appropriate rate. You may even find them disinterested in your attempts to engage them. Play for the long game. Friendships are made from time, commitment, sacrifice and diligence. Those are the friends you keep — and want to keep.

As you walk with your new friends, realize they have as much to teach you as you do them.

Not only are they extraordinarily bright, but they can also teach you what it means to “weep with those who weep” and that there truly is “no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” By governmental standards, they may be labeled “refugees,” but the reality is that they will be the ones welcoming you into their home, their hearts.

You will have a few conversations about the Gospel, and even a chance or two to pray over them and with them. And you will also be the recipient of grace — of their abundant food, generous hospitality, contagious laughter and the gift of their children. You will share the Gospel with them, but the Lord will be so kind to give you a tangible dose of the Gospel through His Burundian friends, His Burundian children.

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About the author

Wesley Mills

Wesley Mills lives in Knoxville, Tennessee where he encourages, challenges and empowers others to live out the gospel both locally and cross-culturally. He formerly served with TEAM as a Senior Manager of Mobilization.

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