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A few days before my husband and I were scheduled to meet with our Salt Lake City Bishop to council about serving in an Inner City Service Mission, I received a distinct impression in a dream that we would be called to work with refugees.
When we met with our Bishop, he asked us what kind of a mission we might like to serve? I told him that it really didn’t matter what we would like to do, but the Lord would have us work with refugees. He smiled as I explained the impression I had.
As we attended our orientation for becoming missionaries, there were thirty-two couples with us. Only two couples were assigned to work with refugees and we were not surprised to learn that we were one of those couples.
It was our blessing to serve in the Columbus Branch of South Salt Lake for two and one half years. The refugees were mostly the ethnic minority Karen from Myanmar, Southeast Asia. Many had lived in United Nations camps in Thailand from seven to twenty seven years. Resettlement by the United Nations was now going on with democratic nations accepting refugees. An entire generation of these beautiful children had grown up inside these fenced refugee communities.
Our refugees came from Mae La Camp where there were some 40,000 residents. They lived in small bamboo huts with dirt floors—as many as twenty refugee family members assigned to a single hut. Clean water, sewage and garbage removal was a problem and the tropical area was infested with bugs, spiders, snakes and cockroaches.
While refugees needed basic living skill instruction on cooking, plumbing, and cleanliness, most kept themselves and their clothes spotlessly clean. Sacrificing their comfort zone of the jungles, they had came to the United States willing to work hard to improve the future opportunities for their children.
As we labored among these Utah refugees with eleven other missionary couples, we learned exactly what Sister Linda K. Burton, General Relief Society President, meant when she recently talked about serving in the Church’s “I Was a Stranger” program. We felt a great love for these dear brothers and sisters who had experienced so much tribulation in their lives, through no fault of their own.
At first most of us felt an urgent need to rescue them and help families adjust into American life styles. However, it didn’t take too long until we realized there was a better way to help them. By following the Chinese Proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
As we reached out to these families, we would first attempt to know who they were and to understand their unique challenges. We were reminded of Gordon B. Hinckley’s council, “Civility, I submit, is what gives savor to our lives. It is the salt that speaks of good taste, good manners, good breeding. It becomes an expression of the Golden Rule: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” (Matthew 7:12). We learned to graciously accept their cultural practices and realized that we did not necessarily always have the best way.
We learned it was most important to be responsible to them, not for them. We practiced being mentors. Although we had a tendency to want to mother them, we knew it was better for them to have a choice. They needed to choose their own course and make their own mistakes. Our job was to share what we knew, offer suggestions of what consequences might occur, and then respect their God given right of free agency.
We introduced goals which were specific, measurable and connected to a time table. We found this to be helpful to people no matter what their culture might be.
Small successes were joyfully recognized. Their future held huge goals to accomplish. They could only take one step at a time. We were anxious to see great progress, but came to understand it was a process. Over several years their small successes developed into truly significant accomplishments.
An effective relationship was established with refugees when we maintained their privacy, were reliable, and available to have them talk with us. We became a good resource to them and friends as well.
One of the greatest things we learned from our mission was humor helped enhance our relationship. It was a shared response. We often laughed together. Even though the words were not there, laughter became our universal language.
As Sister Burton said, “In all our prayerful efforts, we should apply the wise counsel of King Benjamin, given to his people after he exhorted them to care for those in need: “See that all these things are done in wisdom and order.”
We are aware, as Elder Patrick Kearon said at General Conference in April, there are highly charged arguments in governments and across society regarding what the definition of a refugee is and what should be done to assist the refugees. Without commenting on immigration policy, it is astounding to note there are an estimated 60 million refugees in the world today, which means 1 in every 122 humans, has been forced to flee their homes because of no fault of their own. Half of these are children.
My husband and I wholeheartedly agree with Elder Kearon who explained, “Meeting refugee families and hearing their stories with your own ears, and not from a screen or newspaper, will change you. Real friendships will develop and will foster compassion and successful integration.”
We pray that members throughout the world will accept the invitation of the First Presidency to participate in Christlike service to refugees worldwide, and participate in the Church’s relief effort entitled: “I Was a Stranger.”
JB and RaNae Watsabaugh