Born a girl, into a persecuted minority group in Afghanistan, Fatima1 already had two strikes against her. To make matters worse, she also married the wrong man. One night, her husband pummeled her, knocked out her teeth, sliced open her face, and stabbed her skull, leaving the 25-year-old mother unconscious and bleeding to death. When her brother found her, he carried her on his back to the nearest hospital. He was told she wasn’t likely to make it.
The next day, Fatima’s colleagues, from the local TV station where she worked as a videographer, took her to the International Assistance Security Force hospital. The doctors saved her life and reconstructed her jaw. Over the next six months, she healed. But, with her husband still at large, she knew she wasn’t safe. She entreated a judge to jail her husband, but when he suggested an illicit arrangement in exchange for doing so, she fled to Iran with her sons.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban said Hazaras weren’t even Afghans. In Iran, people said to Afghan refugees, “Go back to your own country.” After a few years, when Iran refused to renew her visa, Fatima and her sons moved to Tajikistan. Tired, poor and yearning to be free,2 they sought a country they might call home.
After three years in Tajikistan, their asylum application to the U.S. was approved. They had found the light of a lamp lifted beside a golden door:3 The United States of America. They borrowed $4,000 for plane tickets, packed their suitcases, and headed to America to begin again; strangers in a foreign land.
Upon learning of their arrival to Columbia, SC in the fall of 2014, I raced across the 10 miles to the Lutheran Services Carolinas’ Welcome House to meet Fatima and her three sons, ages four to eighteen. Over the next few months we spent time together at stores, parks, restaurants, doctor’s offices, and in the living room of their small apartment. Fatima joined the jewelry-making classes I was offering other refugees and was soon inquiring about starting her own business.
Many churches, and other people I called on, helped them get established. Even their English teachers from two local bodies of believers rallied around them. Students, professionals, stay-at-home-moms, and volunteer English language partners all pitched in to shuttle the family to and from doctor’s appointments, grocery stores, parks, and to their own homes for meals. They gave them driving lessons and welding lessons. They registered Mosen, Fatima’s four-year-old, for kindergarten and babysat him on OneMaker’s artisan workdays while Fatima made jewelry.
Fatima and her sons worked hard to learn English, the bus system and how to drive. Mosen learned English at daycare; her middle son made the B honor roll; and her oldest landed a job at a restaurant, quickly advancing to the position as a chef. While managing chronic pain, Fatima juggled her hotel housekeeping job, a myriad of doctors’ appointments, and whatever English classes she could fit in, all while stoking dreams of landing a better job and buying a house.
Spending time with them was a joy. I especially loved feeling Mosen’s arms around my neck and taking him to the splash pad where he raced through the chutes of water, and to the park where he fearlessly scaled the playground equipment. One day, as he was zooming around his living room with trucks I had brought, his mother, another friend, and I chatted over tea. That was the last day I would see Mosen alive.
Three days later, tragedy snatched Mosen from this earth, piercing his mother’s heart with a pain like none she had ever known. “Everything else can be fixed,” she told me later. “Not this.”
At Fatima’s request, a local mosque organized the small boy’s funeral, welcoming Muslims and non-Muslims to mourn with the family. The wails of a shattered mother and the sight of her falling on her son’s grave were forever seared into the minds of all in attendance.
Fatima could not face returning to her apartment, now absent her boisterous little boy. So volunteers packed and stored their things for her. OneMaker covered the costs of funeral clothes, an apartment deposit and an airline ticket for Fatima’s friend from Memphis, also a refugee. A local family hosted them for two weeks while they grieved and waited for a new apartment to become available.
After Fatima and her sons were settled into their new place, the floodwaters of 2015 displaced them again. Then, she and her oldest son were in a serious car accident. In every crisis, God’s people rushed to their side; helping them move, taking them to the hospital, handling insurance claims. When the oldest told his refugee friends in other parts of America about it, they marveled. They said they felt alone where they lived.
When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? …And the King will answer and say to them, ‘…inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’
– Matthew 25:38-40 NKJV
I was saddened by his friends’ experiences, though not surprised. Only eight percent of churches in America are involved in serving refugees locally.4 I’m thankful for God’s people here. Refugees displaced from their homelands by war and persecution often find closed doors and closed hearts among the countries where they seek asylum. Peace-loving refugees fear a misplaced backlash against them and being sent back.
Fatima said, “We are human. Our blood bleeds red.” Whatever our views on immigration policy, I entreat Christ-followers to embrace the biblical mandate to love the strangers among us, who are also often orphans and widows, or men who have served alongside our own soldiers in war zones. May they find in us a safe haven filled with Christ’s love and friendship.
Jana Harp Dean is the founder and director of OneMaker, a 501(c)3, nonprofit organization helping vulnerable women and girls around the world by launching and developing business ventures in places like Afghanistan, India, and Kenya, and also providing educational sponsorships for girls.
Learn more or make a donation: OneMaker.com
1 Names have been changed
2 Reference to the inscription on the Statue of Liberty
3 Reference to the Statue of Liberty
4 2016 LifeWay Research Survey