Children who have experienced trauma are forced to grow up early. Childhood naivety and playful wonder are replaced by the need to simply survive and cope with daily life. Children—who most need to be cared for and protected—are suddenly protecting and taking care of themselves.
These Guatemalan churches see the many needs within their communities and are serving in very difficult places with hearts to bring God’s hope and healing to the hurting around them.
Our world values the beautiful and brilliant. That’s what we see in advertising, on the news, and on the stage. We are surrounded by their images. We are compelled to admire them and aspire to be like them. I admire the beautiful and the brilliant, too.
We pull up in a white SUV, and the young Yazidi ladies of the Akoyan Village approach our car with joy. Bursts of genuine laughter erupt as they hug Ingrid, Jessie, and Dawn, women whom they’ve come to love during their time spent together.
Flashback to early June 1995—I had just graduated from high school and hopped on a plane to spend the summer in Zimbabwe. As a 17-year-old boy with little to offer in terms of medical care, counseling advice, or theology, I knew that finding my role would be key to understanding my purpose on that missions team.
Driving through the majestic mountains, lush with green grass and springs bursting forth with water, Northern Iraq is something to behold. This beautiful land affectionately known as “Kurdistan,” has been a refuge to those hunted by ISIS. One day, books will be written and movies filmed about this time in history. Our children will read about one of the greatest horrors of our time. Amid the tragic stories, I hope they will also read of both people who chose to flourish in the worst of circumstances, and people like you and me, those who found a way to walk alongside the suffering.
During those first months and years of caring for refugee families, an array of questions had to be answered. How do we house them, while still supporting their family unit and honoring their culture? How do we feed them, while empowering them to work and provide? How do we educate the children in a way that supports the entire community? After these pressing questions were answered, out of a desire to see these families thriving, we have to seek out the best possible way to provide emotional care for individuals who have walked through some of the greatest trauma known in our time.
We believe in partnership, and we are thankful for the ways that our friends have joined us in this work. In 2017, we were able to partner with Tutapona, an organization that brought intentional trauma counseling to Northern Iraq by working with every family in our program.
Desiring to see additional progress and continued care for these families, Billy and Dawn began to pray about what was next. In an incredible answer to prayer, members of Hillsong London reached out to Billy and Dawn and offered to come and train a few of the locals on how to teach Shine & Strength, “a unique personal development and group-mentoring tool that uses an inspirational, practical and experiential approach” (Hillsong). Dawn viewed this as a wonderful fit for their work in Iraq, as it would help men and women see their value. Dawn said, “it teaches them that they have this strength to decide and to be resilient. There are things that they are good at that they can use to help other people.”
Five people from London came and spent a week training five of the local staff in Iraq on how to teach this program. It was a wonderful and encouraging time for everyone. The women learned about their worth, strength, and purpose. The men learned about their personal identity, purpose, and life direction. These programs are six weeks long, and they use a multi-sensory approach, engaging the individual through visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles.
A group of ten Syrian men walked through the Strength program, and six Yazidi women participated in the Shine program. Recalling her time with the women, Dawn says, “It was a really powerful time the week they talked about potential. They passed out seeds with planters and dirt, and they talked about how each one of us have that same potential. [The women] were reminded that they have encouragement from other people and opportunities to learn and develop things they are interested in. [They learned] how that potential can then grow, and a whole orchard can come from just one seed. They planted all the seeds and then got to come back and see how the seeds had begun to grow.”
As the funding becomes available, we hope to provide this course to 60 refugee families and all 40 of our local team members. We are incredibly thankful for God’s faithfulness, as he provides us with friends and partners, and he inspires other organizations like Hillsong to write these powerful curriculums. Everyone working together brings about beautiful stories of transformation as we seek to wholistically care for those we’re walking alongside.
I saw the smile on her face before I saw the rest of her—a broad, beautiful smile with frequently used laugh lines on either side. She held her head high as she laughed. She moved with ease, seemingly dancing into the room before sitting down across from me and expanding her personality into every crevice of the space. Her joy was infectious.
I was recently reminded just how profound play is for children, particularly those that have experienced trauma, when a team of people from NBC’s American Ninja Warrior set up a course in Haiti for children in our program—a safe place to run, laugh, and be a kid. The children in Haiti were gifted with a safe place to play.
Whether you have a GED or you’re a doctor, you’ve been impacted by the education and training you have received, as it has affected your employment opportunities, your income, and your ability to pursue other opportunities. Literacy—the basic ability to read and write—impacts everything from cooking and navigation to making purchases and using a bank account.
For the vulnerable families we serve, prioritizing mental care and education can offer hope, security, and a way out of poverty. Investing in the mental capacity of both the caregivers and the children we care for is both fundamentally necessary and abundantly rewarding.
When we met Zewditu, she was still in the process of grieving her husband’s death, and she had placed her children in the care of others, hoping that they would have the opportunity to have a better life than she could provide. She was trying to make ends meet by washing clothes and working at a local plantation, but it simply was not enough.
Zewditu was devastated when she learned that her youngest child—whom she thought was receiving good care—was not being sent to school. Zewditu began voicing her frustrations to one of her clients, a woman whose clothes she washed, and the woman told her about the World Orphans Home Based Care (HBC) Program at a local church.
When Meskerem of the HBC Program learned that Zewditu had placed her children in other homes, she encouraged her to pursue bringing them home, “They lost their father. There shouldn’t be a shortage of love from their mother.” Motivated by this advice and supported by the local church, Zewditu brought her daughters home.
Today, through education on savings, training on business management, and additional resources, Zewditu has her own business selling food at the local market. With the church’s support and her increased income, Zewditu was able to move into a bigger home that better accommodates her business. She shares a life and a home with her two daughters.
Dansure, Zewditu’s oldest child, is 15 years old and her mother’s pride and joy. In addition to helping her mother around the house, Dansure is a very disciplined student who prides herself on being at the top of her class—a goal she worked hard to achieve. She loves her mother and is grateful for her encouragement in the area of education—an opportunity not afforded to Zewditu.
What does prioritizing mental health and education in Ethiopia look like? It looks like an impoverished mother learning to establish and grow her own business. It looks like family reunification. It looks like a 15-year-old girl with goals for her future and a bright smile on her face as she says, “I ranked first in my class.”
"D is for Duck", the teacher says with a smile on her face as she points to the board. Children excitedly engage in their lesson as they sit in a circle on the classroom floor. After they finish this class, they line up and make their way to another classroom, where they each energetically work on a craft. As I watch the children work, learn, and play, I'm overwhelmed by the joy, knowing that life has not stopped for these refugee children. This is a gift.
Bombs going off. Families running for their lives. Cars packed with as many people as possible and whatever items can be grabbed at a moment’s notice. This was the reality for many of the refugees we serve. It didn't matter if they were Yazidi, Shabak Kurd, or Syrian . . . ISIS was after them all.
Out of this desperate situation, The Refuge Initiative was born, and the years we had spent there previously established the foundation for everything now needed to care for these families.
We started by setting up tents, which eventually were replaced with single room homes, and we have since expanded to building villages, with two-bedroom homes. As we were looking to care for people over the long haul, we realized that putting a roof over their heads was not enough.
People need shelter and food. But then what? What happens when years go by and the children have not had any education during that time? These are the questions we eagerly asked and with the help of our partners, we sought to provide tangible, brick-and-mortar answers.
A school would be one of the primary answers and would become a staple of caring for these families well. Through an incredible partnership with Love Does, we were able to open the doors of Love Does School in 2016. In this school, we are able to educate more than 600 children and use the building to provide English classes for women. We are also able to bus the children to and from their villages, and the school now employs over 20 local staff members.
The numbers are impressive. We count the children, and look at the statistics of how many jobs are provided. It all matters. But nothing is quite as moving as seeing the face of a child once haunted by the horrors of ISIS, now filled with joy as he learns English, having real hope for a bright future. Here's to building communities of hope . . . until they all have homes.
Imagine you, your daughter, your friend, or your mother doesn’t have access to education about or resources/products for feminine hygiene. How does that alter life for you or that person?
“I have never seen so much grass in my life! Can you believe all the grass?” He exclaimed as he ran around the fields at the Olympic Center in Haiti. His smile was so big, so enthusiastic that I thought it would split his sweet, little face.
The threat of ISIS dwindles by the day, but the threats of poverty, displacement, and despair remain key enemies in this fight.
“My whole life has been a struggle. I made my cloth into a web (like a spider’s), because I feel like I’ve always been trapped in the middle.
“If I live, I will come back to get my children. If I don’t come back, you know what happened to me."
“I threw myself in front of a moving car, hoping to end it all.”
The call came in during a wholistic care training seminar in Guatemala. As church leaders and World Orphans staff sat gathered together, discussing the care of vulnerable families, the dreams about the future and logistical plans came to a screeching halt, interrupted by a desperate plea.
Partnership. It is at the center of all we do; it is one of our core values. Both practical and philosophical reasons encourage us to place such emphasis on partnership.
Alemitu is one of the caregivers in our program in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Her husband died, leaving her as a widow and a single mother to care for her 10-year-old child.
Sometimes a new church partnership feels a little like an awkward first date. You’re fearful you’ll laugh too loudly, get spaghetti sauce on your shirt, or accidentally trip over your own big feet.