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Refugee Conference: In Tents, Intentional, Intense

The first day of the Refugee Conference 2018 organised by Interserve Singapore introduced the audience of over a hundred to the theme of Tent Cities.

Having grown up in Singapore, the thought of refugees is out of my usual frame of reference.

I think of people on the run, without citizenship or identity, whose fate lies in the hands of circumstances, or those who find them. So you can imagine the paradigm shift that pastor Edwin Lam (then chairman of the Interserve Singapore board) caused when he reminded us that we too were once refugees, until we found our refuge in God.

The objective of our gathering was simple: first, to meet God (and to receive rescue from Him); and second, to learn about the refugees that He cares about.

When one reflects on refugees, it’s easy to feel hopeless (“There’s no way out!”), helpless (“I’m only one person…”), or apathetic (“I’m thousands of miles away, what can I do?”). But at the conference, we reflected on how as people of God, we can offer up the little that we have to our Heavenly Father who can do something.

Reverse Missions by Working with People in Tents

Historically, we are conditioned that missions involve going out into the world to preach the good news. However, with increased migration -- in particular the community of refugees -- reaching unreached people groups for Christ can take place in our own backyard.

Dr. Ng Oi Leng, Medical and Education Director of El Shaddai, reaches out to 15 nations across the Middle East and Africa (even as far as Cuba!) without having to leave the familiarity of her native soil in Malaysia. The centre holistically ministers to young refugees and their families through education, health facilities (such as mobile clinics to reach into the village), shelters and social enterprises. El Shaddai Centre cares for the refugees’ physical needs, providing them a solution that guides them on the path towards reconciliation with their Abba Father.

Serving their needs and providing a way for them to experience God’s goodness is what matters most to her. “Whether they are Christian or Muslim, it doesn’t matter. They can decide that for themselves, at another point in time. What matters is that we offer them a chance of life transformation.” Humanly, it can be easy to see refugees as anonymous individuals with no chance at a fulfilling their destiny, given their situation. However, through God’s redemptive lenses, their lives are full of promise and potential.

“Now I know why God brought me to Malaysia. He brought me here so I could know Him,” a few of the refugee students remark, at the end of their journey. Others say, upon seeing the sacrificial example of their teachers, “When I grow up, I want to be just like you.”

Refugees are especially hungry for the gospel, because they are in a new place, in desperate circumstances. As hosts, we have a unique opportunity to share Christ with them in tangible and intangible ways, providing an atmosphere of welcome.

Intentional Welcome

And “welcome” is a word that few refugees hear. Reflecting on his experience in the Middle East as he shared on the Gospel Movement of Refugees in the Middle East and North Africa, Lim Nan highlighted how the media often dehumanised refugees with stereotypes like “boat people” and “criminals”. Through practising hospitality, and honouring the humanity in each individual refugee, we reflect the welcoming nature of Christ.

People become refugees because of their race, religion, or even political position, Lim Nan shared. He himself nearly became a refugee when his father escaped to Indonesia during the war. Had his father started a family in Indonesia, they would have led a very different life.

By being welcoming hosts, and meeting emotional and social (in addition to spiritual) needs, we can help refugees experience the gospel. pastor Paul, shared his testimony about how God can allow migrants from parts of the world that are closed to the gospel to experience God by entering a foreign land. In Lebanon, which was more open to the gospel, pastor Paul could preach with less barriers.

Pastor Paul Jung (right) sharing their experiences of ministering in Lebanon

Sometimes, being welcoming is as simple as saying hello. Singapore-based Ugandan Bernadette says hello to the people around her as many chances as she gets -- especially taxi drivers. Sometimes, she is met with quizzical looks when she steps into a taxi and says hello. Saying hello is a simple act of acknowledging human dignity. Bernadette encourages people to serve refugees on a GPS basis -- to Give, Pray, or to Send (or be sent).

Since Singaporeans are welcomed all around the world (passport wise), Lim Nan challenged Singaporeans to use their privilege of access to many nations for God. Knowing Singapore’s passport is (for now) number one in the world, where can God send us to show His love?

Intense Need

“The harvest is plentiful,” said pastor Said, who entered the refugee conference from Lebanon after experiencing a series of persecutions on his church, and a leg operation that very nearly prevented him from coming to Singapore. He shares that after the initial step of evangelism, follow-up processes of discipleship are difficult because there are few workers available to help in the work. The urgency of working with refugees is especially great. Because a refugee’s time in a particular place is limited, ministers such as pastor Said seek to make the deepest impact in the shortest time possible, before the refugees are moved to other locations, like Europe.

However, with adequate discipleship, there is huge potential for discipled refugees to make an impact in new countries. For example, pastor Said shared, refugees who resettled to Italy could be frustrated at the lack of resources for people who speak Arabic, or provisions for refugees or other migrants in similar situations. As Jesus did with his disciples, Pastor Said sends his disciples out and empowers them to continue the work. When he sends refugees out of Lebanon, he encourages them not to return quickly, but to plant seeds of the gospel wherever they go.

The urgency of meeting such drastic needs would be hopeless if not for the provision of God. 23-year old Heidy Quah, who founded Refuge for the Refugees (an education enterprise for refugee children and youth) when she was 18, shared her first fundraising attempt for these children -- home-baked cookies sold door-to-door, which ended up with a tiny SGD30 in funds. However, God used the little faith that she gave to Him and multiplied it, according to her faithfulness, and today she is able to testify of the joy of “doing life” with the refugee children and their families, and living in community with them. And it all started because two young ladies about to embark on university saw that they had the privilege of higher education while these refugee children (from surrounding nations such as Burma and Indonesia) had severely restricted access to education.

Both pastor Said and Heidy spoke of the need to trust in the Lord for His provision and His resources, and simply to do as He says. If we do what he says, it will be done.

Heidy and pastor Said telling their stories

The Heart of the Father

Ultimately, ministering to refugees reflects God’s heart of pursuing the one lost sheep. The drama team of Grace Assembly of God illustrated different types of refugees -- a black sheep (refugee who was trained to be a terrorist), a lost sheep (a refugee who was homeless) -- and other characters in a refugee’s story -- the French politician who is concerned with the interests of her people, and may not have the capacity to care; the apathetic Singaporean who is more concerned about NTUC discounts in the newspapers than news of refugees halfway around the world, and feels he does not have the resources to help.

Grace Assembly of God’s dramatisation of refugee lives, and perspectives towards refugees

For whatever reason it is that the sheep have gone astray, Jesus loves them to the very end. May we have the same compassion that Jesus has to run after the one lost sheep, and to offer all of ourselves -- our money, as well as our unquantifiable time -- to be His hands and feet.

As we aim to serve the refugee community with whatever talents we have, let us always remember the love and urgency with which He first pursued us, until we found refuge in Him.

“Take my hand, pray with me!”

Lim Nan challenging conference attendees to care for refugees as our own brethren

Why should we care for refugees?

It could have been us.

Our brother’s keeper

Lim Nan challenged us to consider the possibility of us living a refugee’s life. Often, we take the security of Singapore for granted. In our comfort and prosperity, we forget our responsibility towards our fellow men. But that’s the responsibility that God holds us accountable to.

Then the LORD said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" "I don't know," he replied. "Am I my brother's keeper?" ~ Genesis 4: 9

What is our response to the abilities that God has given to us? As stewards of God’s resources, how will we use our resources, time, and gifts to be centered on God’s mission to serve others made in His image?

Hearing their stories

“When we think about privilege, we think about having a big house, and having many cars...but privilege is simply a matter of having food, and shelter,” shared Heidy Quah, co-founder of Kuala Lumpur-based Refuge for the Refugees, a non-governmental organisation that raises the standard of education for refugee children. At their workshop, each person was given a card to help them to understand the inner thoughts of refugees from all across the world -- young and old -- and those who work with them, such as humanitarian workers.

Heidy Quah and Andrea Prisha - co-founders of Refuge to the Refugees

Heidy and her co-founder Andrea shared passionately about the refugee situation in Malaysia, shedding more light on it through a documentary with an intense capture of stories of immigrants from Africa, China, and Burma who came through Malaysia. Many find themselves separated from their children, or at the mercy of corrupt personnel. There is indeed a rich opportunity to present Hope to them.

“Nothing changes if nothing changes,” Andrea said. Ways we can help include fundraising, or going to the localities to help.

Heidy and Andrea bringing to light the situation of refugees in Kuala Lumpur

Simulation Exercise

Our lunch was cut off by an alarm that forced us all into refugee families of five. We were made to queue, and in our families, find ways to leave Syria where we were originally based. Each of us was given an identity card -- a grandfather, grandmother (in their 70s or 80s), father, mother, or child (who had to pass 7 levels of examinations before being able to earn their keep in the real world).

I was an 85-year old grandfather, a cleaner, of the Ismat family. Being in a role-play scenario allows participants more insights into the plight of the characters they assume. As a grandfather, I was aware of my limited ability to contribute to the family, but also became increasingly concerned for the welfare of my “grandchild” and her future, knowing that her welfare was at stake.

As a cleaner, my role was to go from station to station to ask if any cleaning was needed, and we would earn $5000 for 5 stations. Feelings of anxiety and desperation rose to the top quickly - I found myself competing in a chaotic mass of individuals who were queueing for groceries, to pay tax...within a strict time limit, I had to find ways to earn as much as possible to feed the family.

Mid-way, activists came to protest against the government; a barrage of circumstances descended upon us without letting up -- Hand-Foot-Mouth-Disease at the school (preventing students from studying further); sudden airstrikes (where we all had to stoop low, covering our heads with our hands). Our family (and gradually the rest of those in Syria too) decided it was better to leave for Turkey.

My refugee family - the Ismats

Turkey, we thought, would be a better place, a safer place. But quickly we saw there were insurmountable barriers even to enter the country, and people were nasty towards refugees because they did not belong. Our family was unfairly selected to pay over $1000 tax in order to work. The feelings of desperation remained. There are few forms of work available to us, let’s just take whatever we can get in order to survive. The constant tirade of airstrikes and diseases rendered our efforts at work useless; and even school seemed to be difficult and ineffective, with no promise of achievement.

Our family took the decision that a few of us would leave for Germany to seek a better life there. Initially we had felt that the father was best equipped to go, but women and children were able to board on cheaper tickets. As the mother and child in the family left for the docks, I felt a keen sense of loss at the separation. (And it was only a simulation exercise!)

Sudden airstrikes hinder refugees’ progress from Turkey to Germany

There were many complaints about how difficult the game was to win - but perhaps it was not designed to be won. The simulation was tiring even mid-way through, in the midst of the four of the eight rounds (“I don’t want to play anymore!” became a common refrain throughout). The constant disappointment of expectations was keenly felt, even in a mere 2.5 hours.

I could only imagine the turbulence of the actual situation faced by refugees, day after day...for many years.

Towards the end, as we stepped into the room, Christy spoke life to us, comforting us with reminders of God’s peace, and the promise of fulfilled expectations. Though it was only a simulation, I think we did need that degree of comfort, of hopeful promise. As we were role-playing, all we could do was to laugh, she shared, of her experience during the simulation and even before. Laughter was the best way to relieve the pressure of the circumstances.

God is on the move

However, God is surely acting on behalf of the refugees. He remains on the move with them. Pastor Paul brought videos of testimonies of God intervening in refugee situations when they came to know Him; stories of provision, of abundance; of rolling away the shame of reproach, even in the midst of apparent poverty.

In the evening workshops, facilitators shared of the practical ways they put God at the centre of their life and work, and created or took advantage of open doors to serve various communities (parents, teachers, and so on) and to minister His life to them.

Christy encouraging conference attendees to take a stand for refugees

In closing, Christy shared of a prayer meeting for the Middle East she attended after 6 years of living in Egypt where the leader rallied others to pray for healing over Christy’s “trauma”. Christy reflected and knew deep down, she was not suffering from "trauma". Instead, she consciously chose to never ever forget the suffering of both her friends and the refugees she did life with in Egypt.

May we too...never forget.


Joanna Hioe is daughter of King Jesus. She lives in Singapore but holds many countries (like Indonesia and Philippines) and continents (like Africa and Latin America) in her heart. She loves everything that reflects God's colorful nature - rainbows, animals, kids, university students, and startups. She wants to be remembered as the girl who took a risk for God.

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