You could have walked faster than we drove, winding our way around bushes and piles of trash, climbing through hole after hole filled with yesterday’s rain and today’s sewage. I knew what to expect. I knew what I was about to experience. And yet nothing could have prepared me for what was right around the next pile of garbage.
“Welcome,” our national friend says, “to a South Sudanese refugee camp.”
We park next to a temporary tent — the hospital — if it can even be called that. Inside half a dozen patients lined the walls waiting to be treated. Shuffling past them we enter into a small room, furnished with nothing more than a wheelbarrow and tiny plastic table. The wheelbarrow housed what little medicine there was, all of which had been sent over from an outside organization. The doctor sat on a plastic chair at the table, his white coat in stark contrast to his ebony skin. He was a refugee himself, forced to flee his home when war broke out. Having very little formal training, he clung to a small medical book, gleaning information from it as unfamiliar conditions arise. What he lacked in knowledge he made up for in heart.
He treats 40+ people each day, and nearly all of them have one thing in common: preventable diseases….their sicknesses due to a lack of clean water or proper sanitation. But even that sounds too nice a way to put it. Snot falls from noses in an ever steady stream of white slime. A murky haze covers clear, bright eyes. Feces resembles water in consistency. Coughing is as common as laughter. People are suffering. They are sick, despite the doctor’s best efforts. People drink water straight from the Nile, a murky mixture of mud and bacteria. It was either that, or wait for the next government delivery, an unreliable, ever-changing process that could take two weeks or longer. The three existing toilets meant to serve 8,000 people overflow with sewage, mixing with the mud children play in and the ground families sleep on.
Proper holes need to be dug for toilets and wells drilled for drinking. Yet lacking money and resources, the doctor is destined to treating preventable disease after preventable disease with whatever medicine is on hand.
Leaving the hospital we make our way towards the birthing tent, an overcrowded structure formed from PVC pipes and tarps, filled with women and their newborn babies. Entering the shelter, I step over a stick, the “tool” used for severing the umbilical cord. A midwife tends a fire at the front of the tent while mothers line the walls, nursing and cradling their little ones. Having no desire to make these tired mamas a spectacle we quickly leave.
As we loop around the rest of the camp, giggling children trail behind. With each dark, beautiful face that I pass, I begin to notice another thing they all have in common — joy. Each person meets my smile with a genuine grin, quite the opposite of what I expected from people who have left everything behind fleeing for their lives, whose bed is the ground and future uncertain.
Having lingered behind long enough, a dozen children now intermingle with our group. Each child puts up a tiny hand, cultural and language barriers crashing down with each shy wave. One by one little hands extend in my direction, unsure of what they want I reach out mine. A fit of laughter explodes as hands cling on, small fingers wrapping around my hand, then my arm, now both arms. Previous warnings of germ filled, bacteria covered hands quickly dissipate. I look down at their sweet faces, tucking away memories of what each tiny hand feels like entangled with mine, mud gently exfoliating our skin and laughter all around. I have nothing to give them. I can’t speak their language to tell them I love them, or that there is a Heavenly Father that knows each one by name and cherishes them far more than any person ever could. I can only hold these little hands, so hold them I do.
The dark clouds that once loomed in the distance are now atop us. One by one little hands slide away as they seek shelter in one of the many tents. I, for one, am thankful for the storm. As rain drops mix with salty tears, I slide into a tent to wait for the return of the sun.
It’s not the poor living conditions or the sacrifices made, neither the preventable diseases or the overwhelming amount of need that brings me to tears. The thought that wrecks my heart as I stand here in a refugee camp in war torn, politically unstable South Sudan is a thought of home; I think of a group of people in South Carolina who have actively protested the arrival of refugees. I remember the meetings they’ve held, the blogposts they’ve written and the social media posts they’ve published all conveying one message; that refugees aren’t welcome.
Maybe if they could just see this, just be here and experience this, their attitudes toward refugees might change, I think.
But truthfully, I doubt it.
If the golden rule, kindness, compassion, or empathy, if wealth, abundance, education, freedom and safety, if a commandment from the Creator of the universe and Savior of our souls isn’t enough for every last one of us to welcome refugees with open arms and caring hearts, then I doubt being here, standing here in this camp would actually change minds.
That, friends, is what moves me to tears.
As wealthy believers, may we build longer tables and bigger houses, not to put up fences but to invite others in. May we live humbly and give graciously. May we use our money, our resources, our things, to love God and to love His people. And may we never once think we are the only ones with something to give. Those 8,000 refugees showed me what it looks like to have joy dependent on Christ and Christ alone, to still laugh and play despite adversity and to be ever thankful for what I have.
Allow them to teach you the same.