It was November of 2013. She stood at about 5’4, her soft brown eyes were kind and her laugh, contagious. Her gratitude always evident, always waiting to spill over. I fell in love with this mother and her four children instantly. They seemed close-knit and amazingly supportive of one another. It was this, I am certain, that came to their aid in survival when they fled their home due to conflict. I see how it has also held them together in the transition to life in America.
When I began working with World Relief as a caseworker, I had just returned from Eastern Africa where I manage a nonprofit that works with at risk children. As one of the first families I worked with as a caseworker, this family was a little piece of what I had left behind and at each home visit with this family I felt my senses come alive with brief familiarity and immense appreciation. From cultural worship music playing in their apartment to the smells and tastes of traditional meals being shared. From listening to an African language being spoken, to being embraced and called “daughter” by this kind woman. On my most stressful day, a visit to their home would leave me feeling refreshed, refilled, and full of the God’s love.
I never asked the family what they had experienced. I felt that if they wanted to share, they would do so if, and when they were ready. For some people, verbally expressing such an experience can be therapeutic. For others, it just seems to escape from their mouth before they realize what is happening. And there is another group, like this family, that does not feel inclined to share. They wish to keep these experiences to themselves (or in the past). I resonate the most with this last group, as I process most things inwardly myself, and desire instead of speaking about them to write about them.
There was one piece of their experience that I was always so fully aware of; when the family fled the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2007, they were separated from their father, and for this resilient woman, from the love of her life. Separation meant that she did not know his location, if he was injured, or worse...if he had lost his life. She found out shortly before her family’s arrival to the Fox Valley that he was alive. I can’t imagine how hearing this news must have felt. She knew for certain that this important missing piece of their lives was alive and this should have been the cause for relief and celebration. But the idea of not knowing when, or even if, she would see him again must have left her feeling stuck and heart-broken. She no longer had to fear for his present, but now for his future.
The story of this brave, godly woman is, unfortunately, a common one. Not only did this strong woman survive a war, but she spent six years in a refugee camp. Not only did she do all of this while keeping her children as safe as humanly possible, but she boarded a plane bound for a completely unknown future with her kids, because she wanted a future for them. This woman came to America alone, supporting and caring for four children. She did not speak English, nor was she familiar with American culture and laws. She had never experienced snow or eaten a pizza or driven a car. She left her other half, her family’s rock and leader, behind in Africa without any idea of when she would be united with him again. She had to become the sole provider, parent-figure, rule enforcer, problem solver, and caregiver for her family and has carried this responsibility alone for over four years now.
It has been several years now. As a caseworker, I helped her apply for her husband to arrive in the US through something called an Affidavit of Relationship (AOR). These can take years, piles upon piles of paperwork, and even more follow up. Our Immigration team has also assisted her in applying for reunification with her husband. His case is just one of over 30 “Follow to Join” (FTJ) cases that our office has tirelessly worked on. She and her family are fairly independent these days, where we see them mostly for immigrant and reunification related meetings. We see them when they stop in, and ask with pleading eyes, if we have any updates on her husband, on their father.
I get married in June of this year, and I can’t imagine being separated from my other half, with no control over when or if we will be reunited. I don’t have any children but I cannot fathom being forced to care for multiple children alone. My comparison is feeble; it doesn’t measure up. When I think of her, I think of so many things… light, laughter, strength, gratitude, bravery, kindness, selflessness, determination, God at work in the world. I admire her in ways she will never know.
The story of a person with refugee background is the story of a human. The story of an Executive Order, of changes to the refugee admissions program, is not just a story of paperwork and numbers, but a story of scared and hurting people. This is a story of families torn apart by war, uncertain of when or if they will ever be reunited. Of wives missing their husbands and children longing for their parents. I can only pray that you feel these stories in the depths of your soul. I can only pray that these lives light a fire in you; a fire to love others harder, accept others more openly, and to advocate for others more often. Believe it or not, your voice and actions have a direct impact on the lives of people all over, people like her husband.
I have come to experience and learn from women who truly trust and thank God in every second of every day, even in the midst of deep pain. I have met many women who have made an extremely difficult decision, to move their children across the world to a new country. Some of these women have lost husbands to death and others are hoping to one day be reunited with their husbands. In spite of the trauma and loss they have experienced, they continue to triumph. Women who were illiterate in their own primary languages learn to communicate effectively in English. Women who have never driven cars work hard to pass driving tests and obtain a license and vehicle. Women who relied on a husband to provide for their family now working long and hard hours in hotels, factories and restaurants. They are stronger than I understand, and more determined than seems possible. They have faith beyond measure and love larger than words can describe. Working for World Relief, I continue to meet and hear about women like the one honored here and I continue to be blessed by their stories. I continue to thank God for women.
Featured woman's name omitted for confidentiality purposes.
Blog written by Kelsey Hulet, Community Outreach Manager