3 hidden costs of being a refugee

By January 21, 2016

Int’l (FH) — REFUGEE [noun]: A person who has been forced to leave their country due to war, persecution, or natural disaster.

We’ve all seen photos of refugee camps. Tents stretch for miles, and families line up for food and water. Nights are cold, and little ones cough and cry. Food for the Hungry (FH) has walked alongside uncountable refugees in its 40-plus years of reaching out in Christ’s name.

Camp for Burundian refugees in Rwanda, June 2015. (FH photo)

Camp for Burundian refugees in Rwanda, June 2015. (FH photo)

Thankfully, many graciously give financially and prayerfully to help. But know that even when the tents are gone, when people are re-settled, there are hidden costs that affect children and families for a lifetime. Here’s just a sample:

  • Education. Many Syrian and Iraqi refugee children are unable to attend school in their host countries. I recently heard an FH partner working in the Middle East say that lack of educational opportunities may be the most damaging long-term effect on Syrian and Iraqi refugee children. There are children in refugee camps in Lebanon who have not attended school for three to four years. Children without an education have limited possibilities in later life. Their children are less likely to attend school. The lack of opportunity can turn to anger and resentment, with highly damaging consequences for a nation.
  • Family life. Life in a tent, or a half-built building, or a garage that people were never meant to inhabit, is really stressful. That’s how many Middle Eastern refugees are now living. Family rhythms break down and children feel adrift. Parents fight, sometimes violently. Families may be split up. Even if the family returns home, there are scars on relationships that take a lifetime to heal—if ever.Some years ago, I attended a “reunification ceremony” at a church in Phoenix, home to many refugees. A refugee husband and wife were reunited after a lengthy separation. The church leaders worked hard with refugees to strengthen marriages, starting with a public and joyful recommitment to marriage vows. Many re-unified couples don’t make it, even those who believe in the “cord of three strands that is not easily broken.”
  • They may not want you when you come back. After the genocide in Rwanda and closely-related violence in Burundi were over (for a time, anyway), people began to return home. They’d been away for years…in some cases, decades. But their land—their source of nutrition and income—may have been appropriated while they were gone, or divided up among relatives. People crowded back to where they thought they might be able to make a living, or where they had family, and found they couldn’t support their household.The influx of people also meant a lack of space in classrooms, doctors and water in the communities.Therefore, returnees aren’t always greeted with open arms. Additionally, they may be permanently branded as an outsider or foreigner in the community that is supposedly their home. The gentleman whose recommitment ceremony I attended told me that his time in the refugee camp had so marked him, he thought it would be impossible to be married to someone who hadn’t also lived in the camps. At times the “otherness” can erupt into violence, especially when a group of returnees is forcibly assigned a new home area alongside different clans or ethnic groups.

Food for the Hungry continues working with returnees in Rwanda, Burundi, and other countries to help communities tackle these problems—and you’re helping if you’re sponsoring a child with FH in these countries. Working with refugees takes a long-term commitment, not just a few months of handing people food and blankets.

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