Lessons Learned from a Congolese Pastor

Story Katie Lynn-Vecqueray, Colorado Wyoming Region, Volunteer

Sometimes, the greatest and most powerful gift is hope. Hope may come in many forms, but it is especially prevalent in the lives of individuals who have been internationally separated from loved ones. These individuals feel compelled to determine the fate, safety, and well-being of their families and friends. The Red Cross Restoring Family Links program intends to offer this peace of mind.

Within the United States, refugees and migrants are often unaware that tracing services exist to assist them in reestablishing communication with those sought overseas. It is therefore essential that Restoring Family Links conduct outreach campaigns to inform these populations that familial reconnection may be potentially and successfully facilitated.

In working as an RFL intern in the Colorado/Wyoming region, I have learned to appreciate the depth and solidarity that refugee and migrant communities exhibit. Their relationships are built upon their religious and cultural identities, identities that serve as foundations in the midst of assimilation’s uncertainties. I have learned that without an understanding of both the community members’ personal and collective narratives, it is difficult to appreciate and connect with the heart of the community’s shared strength.      

Within church communities and congregations, individuals find strength through a sense of belonging and through faith. Congregation members rely on the support of fellow individuals to face the hardships of past experiences and future fears. As I conducted outreach to Denver populations, I recognized the centrality of these religious institutions. I realized that if I could reach one individual with the message and hope of our services, I could potentially reach many more within a congregational setting.

With this insight, I sought connections to different church organizations. Through RFL’s partnership with Ecumenical Refugee and Immigration Services, I was offered a contact for a Congolese church, Come to Jesus Ministries. Although hesitant to initially communicate with the community, I contacted the Ministry’s pastor. His gracious acceptance of my emails and phone calls sparked a shared interest that was grounded in mutual service and sincere respect. I coordinated with the pastor for weeks, inquiring into the needs of his church members and offering him resources to share with individuals he believed might be receptive to RFL offerings.

An imperative of conducting outreach requires the ability to take the lead of the communities and leaders who serve as liaisons between community members and Red Cross services. In working with the Congolese church, I learned to respect the pace of the pastor’s outreach efforts as he conducted them on my behalf and with my guidance. He explained the importance of introducing RFL casework and services to his members through initial announcements from church members who were trusted within the community.

Over a month’s span, the pastor and I coordinated our efforts to cultivate interest in potential new cases. When the time came for our RFL caseworkers to attend the church’s Sunday service, trust had been established, and individuals within the congregation were eager to open a case. The members had found hope, and it had come through a process of friendship, understanding, and the heart of service.

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Experiencing Foreign Culture Through the Eyes of a Refugee

Story by Katie Lynn-Vecqueray, Colorado and Wyoming Region, Volunteer

Katie Lynn-Vecqueray holds up some of the paperwork used as part of the simulation.

Katie Lynn-Vecqueray holds up some of the paperwork used as part of the simulation.

As a volunteer interning with the American Red Cross Restoring Family Links Program, I recently participated in a Refugee Resettlement Simulation where I was given a brief insight into the experiences of recent refugee arrivals as they work to navigate a country foreign in its language, its culture, and its expectations.

For an hour, I was an actor in a simulated reality, but my emotional responses of hopelessness, fear, and frustration were authentic.

American society reveres autonomy, and such autonomy is often expected of refugees as they experience the resettlement process. In the pursuit of freedom and security, many refugees experience a journey in which cultural orientation and integration are equally inspiring and exhausting. The simulation sought to teach its participants that resettlement is a daunting endeavor; every day is a struggle, filled with new challenges, new concerns, and an unsettling feeling of instability.

Each participant was given a folder, and our life stories were summarized on a single page. This made me wonder: How often are refugees and their histories condensed to a conscientiously consolidated word count? With file in hand, we were asked to complete a list of given tasks within our new destination of Aunkmar. This list was simple in its requests, but impossible in its completion. Language courses were indecipherable, and applying for medical benefits and cash assistance were complicated by confounding documentation and the impatience of “native” employees.

At the simulation’s conclusion, I was torn; I felt unnerved by the experience, and I felt relieved by my ability to separate the simulation from my own reality. Above all, I felt humbled by the recognition that for the Bhutanese refugees who enacted the night’s lesson, my simulated experience was their everyday existence.

Following the simulation, the participants reflected on the night through conversation with the refugees, and these individuals’ stories embodied the truth and heart of courage. The need to correct the imbalance of cultural dissimilarities was an imperative that surfaced with many refugee families, and their tireless perseverance served as a gift to teach their audience humility.

I was offered firsthand accounts of how these beautiful, loving, and inspiring people had struggled to overcome discrimination and a feeling of powerlessness at every turn of their cultural assimilation. Predictability and security were unobtainable luxuries, but their tenacity to find the beauty in potential opportunities was unrelenting.

It is my hope that through experiences such as these, our Red Cross Restoring Family Links team can learn and better understand these individuals’ initial encounters with American culture. In seeing the resettlement process through a new lens, RFL can appreciate the importance of connectivity. As a service, we can find ways to gently support and encourage these incredible individuals’ journeys through mindful advocacy and conscious networking. We have the resources to touch lives. And in the process, we learn so much about ourselves.