Taken at #WRD2017 at the Denver capitol. PC: Katelyn Skye Bennett

Why you should support refugee resettlement today

Refugee resettlement is a personal issue to me. Not only do I live with and attend church with 150-200 resettled refugees, who became my dear friends once I met them in the United States, but I also have friends who have applied to receive refugee status and are waiting for that to start the process of potential resettlement.

The family fled the Democratic Republic of Congo, where their hearts still lie, in order to protect their physical lives. They lived in a Tanzania for a short bit, but the country did not provide services to help them, so they flew to Madagascar to stay with a friend and “survive better” there. The youngest family member is six and has already traveled from DRC, through Rwanda and Burundi to Tanzania, then through Kenya to the island nation of Madagascar. He has spent time living in a city in DRC, one in Tanzania, and two in Madagascar since 2015.

Praise God that this family received the first document from the UNHCR stating that they are being considered for refugee status. But after that, if they receive status, the chances of them being resettled are still incredibly low.

Less than one percent of the 22.5 million refugees worldwide are resettled. Refugees can spend 8 years in a camp, 13 as one of my friends did, or their whole lives. Some of my church friends were born in a camp. (Many refugees live in cities, too, as these particular friends do.) Because of the diversity of protracted refugee situations, the length may vary by country and situation.

Despite the amount of people waiting to resettle to a safer nation with more opportunities, the United States has cut its numbers in half. (This article by PEW Research shares more numbers regarding the history of refugees in the U.S.) In the 2016 calendar year, we accepted just under 97,000 people, with a goal of 110,000 in the fiscal year due to the Syrian refugee crisis. Under the 2017 Trump administration, we accepted only 50,000, and in about two weeks we will see the results of the decision for 2018.

Not only has this drastic cut resulted in prolonged instability for refugees waiting to be resettled, but it has also hurt the American economy by cutting jobs for Americans who worked in refugee resettlement. As someone who volunteers in this field and desires a job in it, I’ve witnessed this firsthand.

This is our last chance to influence our politicians before Trump’s decision is declared in October. Pick up the phone and make a call. Use resistbot to send a text message that will fax your politicians. Go to Twitter and Facebook too. Refugee Action Colorado Coalition (RACC) has shared these posts for anyone to use and suggested a minimum of three posts per week:

50k #refugees is inexcusable.  Would be the lowest goal EVER.  We want #75k. #COWelcomesRefugees #GreaterAs1

Stop dismantling refugee resettlement.  Stand against #refugee/Muslim ban. #COWelcomesRefugees #Stand4Refugees #GreaterAs1

#Refugees make positive contributions in economics, national security & community strength. Sustain US refugee resettlement program.  

RACC helpfully shared the handles of Colorado politicians, saying, “Let’s tweet @realDonaldTrump @WhiteHouse and our Senators @SenCoryGardner @SenBennetCO and your Representatives.”

The rally at the Denver capitol on World Refugee Day 2017. PC: Katelyn Skye Bennett

The rally at the Denver capitol on World Refugee Day 2017. PC: Katelyn Skye Bennett

Political action is surprisingly easy with media today. It’s something every American, even minors, can do. Get on your knees and pray and then pick up your cell phone. Together we can make our voice heard this September.

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That moment when you forget you have chronic pain

 

Two of my friends are marrying each other in a few weeks, and they are planning a boat trip the day before the wedding. I was talking to one of them about it, asking how to RSVP, and he said he was not sure if I would be able to participate in the day trip due to my back, since the activities involve hiking.

My friend was very considerate and left the options open to what I thought I could handle, but he remembered what I forgot: that I have chronic pain that affects my daily life.

I forgot this because the boat trip sounded fun. I forgot this because I am a socially active person. I forgot this because I am relatively physically active as well. I forgot this because I was feeling strong during that conversation.

Chronic pain and illnesses are odd in that they do not always manifest themselves. I can go a week carrying my guitar on my back and walking to the library, dancing around the house, and lifting babies so they can “fly.” I will have discomfort and pain in this time, will potentially take some ibuprofen to ward off the stronger pain I feel coming, and will certainly require several massages to keep going in this time, but I will still feel relatively strong.

(My definition of feeling strong means being able to walk without having to think about it.)

But then I will have a breakdown. The pain will grow too strong, and an inexplicable weakness will overcome me. Tears will come, my limbs will go weak, and I will lie on a couch or the floor and have to talk to myself again and again and again in order to sit up or move my legs.

“Okay Skye, you’re okay. You’re okay. Move your leg. Move it. MOVE YOUR LEG. Come on, Skye, sit up. Oops, you’re not moving. Why aren’t you moving, Skye? Silly. There you go. Try again. Good, okay, let’s sit up now.”

Sometimes I will be strong in the morning and have a breakdown at night.

Sometimes I will have a totally strong day.

Sometimes I will have a totally bad day.

Breakdowns tend to happen once a week, on weekends, on Sundays. (The devil still cannot stop my worship to the one true God and my Healer.) However, I cannot predict when I will have a good or bad day.

I asked my soon-to-be-wed friend to pray for me to have strength during the entire wedding weekend. I told him I would plan to go on the boat trip but would cancel that day if need be. I absolutely love hiking, so I really want to go.

And who knows? Maybe the Lord will heal me by then. It has been seven years of pain so far. I think it is about time to enter a year of Jubilee and be rid of this pain. Don’t you?

 

 

Some say refugees. I say friends.

I spend nearly every day of the week hanging out at the houses of refugees or having them over my place. On weekends many of us attend church together, all weekend long. On weekdays others of us eat lunch together; I always look forward to 12:30. Several of us practice music together, all of us converse together and call out the ways we appreciate each other, and some of my acquaintances who are refugees open up their houses till midnight to share ugali and rice and greens and fish.

Just this Sunday, I visited a Congolese pastor’s house as a stranger and left with an invitation to return anytime. As I left, he made sure to point out his apartment number and floor so I could find it next time. Thank you, Pastor David.

I recently realized that I talk about my friends who are refugees differently than I talk about my native-born American friends, particularly those who are white or monocultural. Sometimes this lends context, but it can also be problematic if lending to an othering effect.

“Reaching out to” or “serving” our refugee neighbors or any marginalized population in order to feel good about ourselves hinders us from fully engaging with the group being “served.” When we do this, we are looking through a lens of power versus powerless. Although we may be doing good deeds and growing in our understanding of particular refugee populations, subconsciously thinking in terms of power dynamics blocks our hearts from receiving love.

We native-born Americans are not the saviors. But we can be good friends.

Here’s an idea: let’s develop deeper friendships so refugees become fully human in our eyes, fully capable of giving while still fully needy, like us native-born American humans. Let’s open our hearts to receive love from the strangers and soon-to-be-friends we seek to welcome.

While the humanity of refugees is not a question, it is important to note that the human experiences of refugees have been shaped by horrors like war and statelessness. Refugees have experienced things most native-born Americans have not. Their experiences will vary by age and country and contingency. The histories of the countries they have fled and lived in have shaped them in significant ways. The color of their skin will also impact their life chances once in the United States. We must consider the systems in place that affect their daily lives.

Refugees in the United States have overcome a lot: less than one percent of refugees worldwide are resettled, and it is common to spend almost two decades in camps or foreign cities before coming to the US, if granted status here.

Yet once they receive this status and move yet again, they come to a land that often treats them poorly.

Several of my Congolese-American friends have told me that Africans do not believe them when they say the United States is not heaven. (I witnessed this over
-admiring attitude firsthand in DRC myself.) But the truth is that when they come to the United States, they can barely make rent. Their living conditions are not necessarily significantly different. They start at the bottom of the workforce. Academic degrees do not always carry over to the American system. In short, life is still quite difficult.

Take pause today to consider these injustices. Do a little research. Sleep on what you discover. Wake up woke.

Now take pause to consider the ways refugees give to your community and the United States, the ways you have seen them serve. Thank them for their contributions. Be creative about it.

Today I stand with countless global citizens to celebrate world refugee day. It has been a truly splendid day full of energy and smiles and even a bit of dancing (see the InTandem – a Flashmob of Empathy video below from Denver’s World Refugee Day rally.) I particularly think of the ways my friends are bettering my life through their hospitality and friendship and food. The main ingredients I have noted are time, love, and ugali, given in generous portions. I am grateful for my friends who are refugees and am incredibly glad to be a part of their lives as they are in mine.

Les Worshipers repetition, UJN PC: KSB

Masauti ya nyumbani (Sounds of home)

Every night I fell asleep to the sounds of my neighbors partying, the dance music audible through the thin walls and crimson drapes. Every morning a rooster awoke before the sun and squawked along with my morning alarm. I usually crashed at 20:30 and rose at 5:45 to prepare for the long work day at Un Jour Nouveau, a Goma-based Congolese organization “equipping men, women, and children to transform the culture of Congo through Christ-centered education, reconciliation, and leadership.”

“Siku muzuri,” I’d greet the smiling guards, Carlos and Jonathan, before crossing the road to Mama Esther’s house for breakfast. The sun gleamed off Lake Kivu and illuminated the vibrant foliage and bright flowers in her yard, where I waited for my driver, Fabrice, to take me further into our smoky city of one million. We’d drive over gray-brown rutted dirt roads, past blue Vodacom signs and red Airtel stands, around the turnabout with its statue and construction and occasional military presence, by the pastry store and banana booths to the Center. Fabrice would play “Alpha Omega” by Gael until we arrived.

Then English classes and staff prayer and lunch and piano lessons and worship practice ensued, filling my day with countless people and immense joy. Praises from Les Worshipers, the church choir, echoed off the rooftop and across the street (see video below). It seemed someone was always playing a keyboard or picking on the guitar, and the afternoons were bright with the sound of children’s voices. (I was often one of the people playing guitar and singing, whether in English class or choir repetition.) The sun set by 18:00, I went home for dinner with the family, chatted with my crazy wise and hilarious housemates and began the cycle again.

Goma is a home to me. Charles’ questions and chuckle, Denis’ melodic voice singing “Nakwimbea leo nafuraha” in church, Happy Fanny yelling my name across the yard, Mama Julienne’s Swahili at lunch hour, Jenni’s hearty laugh, Dieum playing “Napesi” on keys — these are some of the sounds of home. I don’t know if I’ll return to UJN and all the particular voices and people I love so dearly, but I do plan to return to Congo. And I cannot wait.

 

UJN lunch squad, 2016. PC: KSB

Lunchtime in DR Congo

Six of us sat on the maize-colored rooftop, attempting to circle together in the sliver of shade as we ate our lunches. The men bantered in Kiswahili, and my eyes wandered to the green banana tree across the way. I rolled the bugali in my fingers, scooped some greens and dipped it in pilipili while trying to understand their conversation.

Usually you would eat wali na maharage (rice and beans) or bugali with some type of greens, but Mama Julienne gave me both on this day because she knew my love for bugali. I have a small amount of pilipili (habanero pepper paste) in the center of my plate as well. PC: KSB

Usually you would eat wali na maharage (rice and beans) or bugali with some type of greens, but Mama Julienne gave me both on this day because she knew my love for bugali. I have a small amount of pilipili (habanero pepper paste) in the center of my plate as well. PC: KSB

Mama Julienne had given me a larger plateful than the day before and included fritis because she knew I liked them. Eventually one of the men asked if I understood the topic, and upon my regretful no, called the rest to switch to English so we could all converse. We discussed relationships, talked about food and helped correct each other’s Swahili or English pronunciation and vocabulary. Smiles adorned our faces as we chatted and laughed together over a particular friend’s antics. A long, peaceful hour passed before we returned to work.

Around 2 p.m. we trickled out, following each other down the stairs, across the dusty ground and to the rocky sidewalk that led back to the kitchen. The mamas stood over the fire, and other staff sat around in white plastic chairs to eat their lunch. We stacked plates and utensils in a tub to the left and poured water over each other’s hands to remove the remaining, sticky bugali.

Bugali, aka fufu, is made of boiled maize in east Africa. You roll it in your hand and use it to scoop the greens or other food. It is my favorite. PC: KSB

Bugali, aka fufu, is made of boiled maize in east Africa. You roll it in your hand and use it to scoop the greens or other food. It is my favorite. PC: KSB

This summer in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I learned how to eat well. I ate three meals a day, a diet of starch, protein, fresh fruit and vegetables from the market. I ate increasingly larger amounts of food because many friends said I did not eat enough, and the mamas wanted to make me bigger. I ate healthily and was satisfied. Furthermore, I took my time to eat it, and I ate with others in community. Life was peaceful and abundant.

I am back in the United States now, and already I am eating less food at mealtimes. People here are generally more rushed and leave meals more quickly, although they do eat together often at my college. The task-oriented culture reaches even the third culture kids and international students who live here now. However, I have learned how to rest and feed my body, and I can still apply these lessons in my current cultural context. I am blessed.

 

Ten things I love about Denver

While I’m not a native Coloradan, I lived in Denver during a life-changing summer two years ago. Now I am back for a bit, and I am so happy. Here are ten things I love about this city, culminating with number 10.

  1. Public transportation.

    Riding the bus is inexpensive and provides the opportunity to people watch, rest from a fulfilling day or observe the city itself through discolored windows. I feel independent when I take the RTD, and I learn about social dynamics by observing where people sit and how they speak to each other. If you’re from a city, you can probably relate.

  2. Sunshine.

    If I could define Denver in a word, I would say yellow. Yellow defines the feel of the summer sun on my skin, the invisible color of the air, the feeling I have while living here – due in part to the serotonin-boosting sunshine. As John Denver croons, “Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy.” Even his name reinforces how the sun connects to this Coloradan city!

  3. Mountains.

    The Rockies awe me with their majesty, the majesty that reflects their Creator. Although I behold them daily, they have not lost their splendor. They always provide me with some metaphor, and they draw me closer to God. In this city, they also help me find my way since I can always know which way is west. As a directionally challenged person, I appreciate that.

    Denver blog view from LFS office

    The view from my office, PC: KSB

  4. My internship.

    I could write blogs upon blogs about my internship. I work with refugees who are resettling in the United States, and I love showing up to work every morning. My coworkers are caring, relational, hard-working and fun, and I relish being surrounded by their many languages. I hear a lot of Arabic in particular, and one of the case managers is teaching me Kiswahili since I am on my way to the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is my second time interning here, and each time I’ve been thrown into learning and doing. I could go on forever about how amazing my internship is, but I’ll move on from describing my amazing weekdays to the event that makes my weekends so fabulous.

  5. Jazz in the Park.

    For ten consecutive Sundays each summer, thousands of people gather in City Park to hear live jazz and consume cuisine from the food trucks. Elderly couples and children dance together by the gazebo, and families hold picnics by the algae-covered lake. Whether chatting with friends or vibing to the music alone, I love the atmosphere.

    Denver blog leaving Jazz in the Park

    Leaving Jazz in the Park, PC: KSB

  6. Old friends.

    Since I lived here two years ago, I have been able to reconnect with people whom I met during a formative time in my life. I have enjoyed catching up with old friends, having fun in community and being near people who can build me up in my faith. These friends vary in age from children to people more than twice my age, and some even call me family.

  7. Walking.

    I appreciate the calf muscles I have been able to sustain by walking; I like feeling strong. While walking is obviously a good way to travel from place to place, exercise or release stress, it is also conducive to exploring. Immersing oneself in Denver’s shops and neighborhoods is easier by foot than by car since it allows for more spontaneity and closeness to the details that characterize Denver. What you discover will depend on where you walk and how open you keep your eyes and heart.

    Denver blog Izzy and me at Juneteenth 2016

    Izzy and I at the Juneteenth Festival, PC: KSB

  8. Festivals every weekend.

    There’s always something to do in the city. With many of these events free and public transportation so easily accessible, Denverites have no reason to be bored. Although I am a bit of a homebody, I also find it healthy to get out of the apartment and explore. I particularly enjoy the cultural festivals such as the one in Five Points celebrating Juneteenth Independence Day. Participating with friends makes the deal even better.

  9. 16th Street Mall.

    Street musicians fill the air with sweet melodies, and public pianos beckon from the center of every block; it is basically the dream. The street is always crowded, which makes it a great place to observe or potentially make connections. (I once met a man who works for the Denver Voice, the homeless newspaper based in my building, while heading toward the movie theater there.) For consumers, 16th Street Mall is the place to satisfy physical hunger, find any item one may desire or simply browse the windows. The mall bus is free and can take you closer to your destination if you’re not in the mood to walk.

    Denver blog 16th St Mall

    A group of activists on 16th Street Mall, PC: KSB

  10. Diversity of people.

    This plays into almost all my previous points in some way. Living with a family of another race and nationality, learning about my friends’ religions in a setting where we all respect each other and can make civil and genuine conversation, appreciating global cultures daily through my friends’ food and the city’s festivals, the buzz during Pridefest when rainbow flags decorated all of Colfax and hundreds of thousands of people from around the country came to celebrate – I do not experience most of these things in my wealthy, white suburban college town, but in Denver I am surrounded by diversity of all forms.

    I am learning so much in this city, and I am thriving off the diversity in which I live. Even if you do not live in a city, I encourage you to seek this out. A trip to Denver won’t hurt either.

What are some things you love about Denver? Comment below!

Surprise Thanksgiving trip through New England: a photo account

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At 3:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, I left my house in Wheaton. At 6 a.m., I flew from Chicago O’Hare to New England for a surprise trip home.

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Besides my parents, my cousin Jonathan was the only one outside of Wheaton who knew I had no way home. I’d tried all semester to find a ride to CT for Thanksgiving, but everyone from CT was either flying back or staying around campus. A week before break, I still had no way home. Because I couldn’t afford a plane ticket, Jonathan let many of my other cousins, aunts and uncles know so they could chip in to buy me one. “It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without you,” he told me when I thanked him. I told my dad about God’s provision before another cousin asked me to keep it a surprise, but my mom and sister had no idea I was going to Thanksgiving with them.

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My Aunt Carol and cousin Becky picked me up from the Providence airport, and we visited a park in Rhode Island that Wednesday. Here I pretended to be queen of the castle.

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Becky and I ran up hills and climbed trees. I loved seeing hills, rock faces, and tunnels of trees again! New England is beautiful–especially Connecticut! 😉

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Rhode Island has a unique beauty, though. It’s quaint, with lots of little streets. We had fun adventuring around the city (a.k.a. being lost on the way to the park).

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Then I visited a tropical island for a minute…I mean, we stopped at a smoothie place in Massachusetts since I hadn’t eaten. Next we continued on to my aunt’s house in New Bedford, MA, where I played with a three year old the family nannies, ate lunch, and napped for eight straight hours. (Oops. I had meant to play family games, but apparently two hours of sleep before a red eye flight exhausts a girl.) I woke up for a couple hours to eat dinner at 10:30 p.m. and wrap presents, and then I slept for another six or seven hours until the morning!

 

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We proceeded on to Connecticut, my beautiful old home, for the family picnic in Cochester.

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At the family picnic, I met some soon-to-be relatives, baby London and cousin Matt’s fiance N’Gella. I also surprised mom by being there. It took forever to get her attention, but she finally turned around and saw me. Becky Bailey captured her initial reaction on camera. Mom’s words upon seeing me? “Oh now that’s not even fair.” (She didn’t like that I had deceived her.)

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But mom was happy I was there!

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*mom hugs*

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My sister Hannah was excited, too. She exclaimed, “WHAT?!” and then did a jig.

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While my dad made mashed potatoes for most of the 52 people in attendance, I mashed a small bowl for the dairy free among us.

Bennett family photo Thanksgiving 2015

After eating, we played football. I made a touchdown at the start of the first game! We ended up losing that game, but my team was 2-1 in the end. Typically those who play football shovel coal afterwards since that’s how Aunt Penni and Uncle Rick heat their house for the winter, but they had already done that, so we went straight to the pie eating, conversing and hymn singing. I spent 10 hours total at their house this Thanksgiving Day!

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On the way to the house in which I was staying overnight, my subconscious dream came true: we went through Hubbard Park and saw the lights!! I hadn’t seen them for two or three years!

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The lit globe has always been my favorite.

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On Friday morning I went to Cheshire Coffee with my friend Jared. It was SO good to catch up with him!! He was the only friend I’d told about my visit since I thought I wouldn’t have time to see anybody. I also thought I wouldn’t be able to visit my old towns, Cheshire and North Haven, but both expectations were surpassed: we drove through both towns, and since Jared had to work at 9:30 a.m., I had the rest of the day to see other people. First I had the pleasure of visiting my old hangout, Music Center of North Haven. I even saw Mark, Mary and Donna Minotti!

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Then, since I was free until 2:30 p.m., Daddy Vecchio picked me up from Music Center and brought me to East Haven, where I saw the whole family–including cousin RiRi. Tyler was even home from Niger, which was a surprise to me!

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I loved being back with my second family, the Vecchios! We’ve all grown, but some things definitely stayed the same. 😉

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Mia and I played our original song, “I Like Cats,” as well as “Safe and Sound,” “Oceans ” and others on guitar, just like we used to do every weekend in high school. Although I hadn’t seen nor sung with her since May 2014, we remembered our harmonies! Then Mama and I dropped her off at work because she’s an adult now! (Side note: I feel so old when I say how much time has passed since I saw my old friends and family!)

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Silas practiced blowing bubbles–he just learned on Tuesday–and Mama fed me. She and I talked with her for an hour or so. I can’t express how happy I am to have seen them! Then several other cousins tag-teamed to get me back to the Providence airport that Friday night, and by 10p.m. I had landed in Chicago again. What a beautiful whirlwind of a break!