Opening Your Heart to Refugees

With the plight of refugees flooding the news, I’ve asked my friend Lisa Bartelt to write a guest post on her own experiences and to provide us with some practical recommendations for moving on from here:

I was not always a friend to refugees.

Maybe I could have told you what—or who—an immigrant was, but I don’t know that I could have attached a name to a living, breathing person with this status.

That’s no longer true.

This transformation was a gradual process, like water shaping rocks. Unnoticeable day-by-day but when compared years apart, the difference is obvious.

It might have started when my family visited Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. We grew up in the Midwest, so we were eager to visit these sites after moving to Pennsylvania. I remember standing in the massive room, empty except for a few tourists, imagining it packed wall-to-wall with immigrants. I read the words about their experiences, saw the pictures.

And then my husband and I decided to try to find his great-grandparents. You can search for people by name, and though we hadn’t been married long and the stories of their arrival are not ingrained in my history, I wanted to find this couple on a ship’s manifest. They were my kids’ ancestors, after all, and I know little about my side of the family’s origins.

Christian Joudrey via Unsplash

Seeing their names awoke something in me as I imagined what it was like to arrive on these shores, tired, poor and uncertain.

If that’s where it started, it would be many years later for that seed to become noticeable fruit.


I don’t know you. I don’t know your personality, your upbringing, your unique life experiences, so all I can do is tell you mine and hope that it helps.

What I want you to know about me is this:

I didn’t become an advocate for refugees overnight. I learned late in life to use my voice for those who didn’t have one. I avoid conflict. I don’t like crowds. And I’m a recovering people-pleaser. These are the sorts of things that work against me whenever I want to lend my support—vocally, physically, monetarily—to a cause that can be controversial.

Gaelle Marcel via Unsplash

I used to be afraid that if I opened my heart to care about something—especially something heartbreaking—that I would suddenly need to care about everything and my heart would literally break and I would not be able to go on with life.

And I won’t lie. Sometimes it feels like that. But I wouldn’t trade a tender heart for a stone-cold one, even when it hurts.

So, I opened my heart a tiny little bit. I gave myself permission to cry over something that didn’t directly affect my life, for people I had never met, might never meet.

I let my heart break a little,
and that’s where love broke through.


I can’t list all the steps in this transformation, but I can tell you a few stories. As my heart opened slightly, I started reading the news again, and when a picture circulated of a little Syrian boy, dead in the arms of his father on the shores of Greece, the crack in my heart widened. How could I do nothing?

But what do you do when you want to care but don’t know where to start?

That same summer my husband and I went to Kenya with a team from our church. I had never been to Africa and it had been 15 years since I had flown internationally. During the flight, we read the International New York Times, whose front page is drastically different than ours. We read about a Greek island overrun with refugees because it is the first landfall they make when they attempt to cross the Mediterranean, seeking safety.

Why hadn’t we heard about this before?

Maybe we had, but we weren’t paying attention.

During our stay in Kenya, we visited a refugee camp, one where Kenyans had been displaced from another part of the country. It had been a decade but most were still living in mud-walled homes, some perched on the edge of a dry riverbed that would flood during the rainy season. We entered these homes. We worshiped God with them. We prayed. We held their hands and looked in their eyes and it dawned on me: These are refugees.

When we left Kenya a few days later, we shared a plane with refugees leaving Rwanda. Congolese refugees, I imagine. They were large in number and somewhat disoriented by the journey. One woman tried to leave the plane as we flew from Brussels to New York. She was sedated and later questioned by port authority when we landed. I didn’t understand what was happening at the time, but when I think about it now, it makes perfect sense.

Would I not also be distressed and overwhelmed if I had lived all my life in one area of the world and was suddenly being whisked away to another part of the world, never to see my home again? Never mind being on a plane flying over the ocean. Never mind not knowing the language.

My re-entry to the American way of life was rough. I thought it would be no big deal to get on with my life after visiting Kenya, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the people. I’m not a person prone to violent outburst but I nearly shouted at someone in the Costco parking lot when they wouldn’t walk their cart to the corral because it was raining.

Do you know that there are people living in mud houses that could be swept away in the rainy season? Do you know that they walk miles to church? That they walk home from work uphill after a long day on their feet?

But they didn’t know because they hadn’t seen, just as I didn’t know because I hadn’t seen.

There was a part of me that wanted to go back to Kenya right away. I dreamt of booking a flight I couldn’t afford, of becoming a missionary or a teacher or whatever I needed to, to get back to Kenya. I dreamt of taking my kids on their first international trip, of showing them a world I had come to love.

But we are not wealthy and I will not go back to Kenya on the support of others. Nor could I realistically give up my life here. I am not actually “called” to be a missionary, not the kind that moves across the world permanently. I needed to do something right here, where I live.

Some friends connected me with a refugee resettlement organization in our city. I attended a volunteer training session one night. By myself. In the city. And I walked away energized but with little direction.

I continued to learn and to read and to pay attention.
These are the foundations for change, I think.

Months later, I finally found my place in volunteering with this organization. I showed up one Tuesday and met a beautiful family from Congo. They reawakened everything I had loved about our trip to Kenya. We became fast friends.

And I had found the work that made my heart come alive.

It’s been about 10 months since I started volunteering with this organization. I have met refugees from Congo, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Burma, Nepal, Cuba and Haiti. Each one has a different story, a different question, a different goal. And all of them are grateful to be here, even as they learn to adjust to a new culture, a new language, a new way of life.

The president’s recent executive order affects refugee resettlement as well as immigration. I won’t try to explain it all here because I don’t fully understand all the pieces of it myself, but I urge you to read it for yourself.

And if it doesn’t sit well with you, you don’t have to do nothing.

You also don’t have to do everything.

Let your heart open just a crack.

Here are some good places to start:

  1. Read a book about refugees/immigrants. Here’s a list to get you started.
  2. If you have Netflix, watch the short documentaries Salam Neighbor, which shows you what it is like inside the largest refugee camp in the world, or The White Helmets, which takes you inside the conflict in Syria to the men and women who are providing aid on the ground.
  3. Learn a new language, any language. The Duolingo app makes this easy. It has been a reminder to me that learning to speak a language I didn’t grow up with is not easy.
  4. Research your own family history. It might surprise you where your roots are. Maybe your ancestors were immigrants once.
  5. Google “refugee resettlement agency” for your area and see about volunteering or ask what their needs are. Some places need donations of furniture or winter coats. Others need English teachers or tutors. Get involved with the work in your local community and meet these newly arrived residents.
  6. Travel outside the U.S. Especially if you can go to a culture that is not like ours.

Again, you don’t have to do nothing.

You also don’t have to do everything.

Simply let your heart open just a crack.

Follow Lisa on her blog (subscribe so you don’t miss her posts), on Facebook, or Twitter.

7 thoughts on “Opening Your Heart to Refugees”

  1. I Loved this story. How sad it must be for them, but that is all they have ever known. Can you also imagine how frighten they are. Never to be in another country. I wonder what if it was us, and we went to their country. And they didn’t want us because we might put our faith on them, or try to harm them. How unsettling this is for all of us. Then I think of what Jesus said, Love One another. he didn’t say to choose one another, but to Love one another. Thank you for giving us an insight into their world.I m glad there is a crack in my heart. It enables me to see what would Jesus do.

  2. This was an interesting read, but I think the point some are missing is the POTUS has only put a TEMPORARY band on refugees. To act like some how we are never going to leave properly vetted refugees into our country again is flat out FALSE. I did go to Ellis Island and looked up my ancestry, from the history I read my ancestors waited weeks, even months to get approved to enter the country not 24 hours in an airport. Our system is broken, it needs re-studied, and re-vamped. I do not appreciate being deemed as having a cold heart because I believe we need time to fix a very screwed up immigration system. We have people in our own country in remote places that are very poverty stricken. We do not even have enough money to give proper care to our veterans and their families. If we clean up our act here and become a healthier nation ourselves, we can do far more, above all we could ever dream or imagine. I say if everyone is so excited for these refugees you probably have a yard bigger than you need, why not let them pitch a tent in your yard! Carol, I am a very compassionate person I just don’t think allowing our immigration system to run a muck is a solution.

    • Carla, thank you for commenting. While the ban is temporary at this time, the president reserved the right to extend it. And the problem with even a temporary ban is that, in the few months that people who have already been fully vetted and approved (which has taken 1 1/2 to 2 years on average, not “24 hours at an airport”) may have to wait, different portions of their paperwork and approvals may very well expire, meaning they have to start some or all of the process over again, so maybe more years of caring for their kids in refugee camps. And I keep hearing from individuals that the system is broken and yet no one seems to be able to give me specifics on how it’s broken. Christian organizations like World Relief and Church World Service and Preemptive Love who are on the ground doing the work to coordinate placement of refugees all say that the system is thorough and well run ( I’m inclined to believe them because they have outline the process for me.I don’t think it’s a zero-sum either-or game. I think we can help veterans and the poor without sacrificing the lives of people fleeing terror. For instance, we could simply take the money our president wants to spend building a wall and care for all of those groups instead. Many Christians have taken in refugees, Carla, and my husband and I would not be opposed to doing so (in our home, not our yard!) if we feel that’s where God is directing us (and they were allowed in the country by our president). We have had a dozen people in need (American teens and both foreign and local young adults) live in our home at various points in the past, so we have put our home where our mouth is and may just do so again. And I would disagree, based on what the people in the field are saying and by the absolute lack of terrorist activity in the US by refugees from any of the banned countries, that our system has run amuck.

    • Carla,
      I’m just seeing this. Thank you for sharing your concerns. Please understand that these refugees are vetted in a process that takes YEARS, not 24 hours. They were already cleared to come here when the “ban” was enacted. And to delay their arrival temporarily means sending them back to a camp where they might be sleeping in a tent again for 90 days or 120 days. It’s confusing and chaotic to get your hopes up that you are on your way to resettlement and then are refused. In Lancaster, we have effectively ended veteran homelessness AND accepted refugees. There is help to go around. While the offer to come pitch a tent in our yard or sleep in our homes would be a welcoming gesture (sort of), they want their own homes. Some of them have not had their own homes for 15-20 years. Their children were born in camps and grew up in them. My intention was not to accuse anyone of having a hard heart but simply to show you my journey from being unaware to being open.


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