Becoming people again

At the conclusion of our final workshop, the refugee church leaders took some time to offer us feedback.  I will never forget the words one of the men shared: “When you come and talk with us and work with us, we feel as though we are no longer refugees.  We become people again.”  If I had wanted to start crying then and there, I probably could have.  If for no other reason, our journey and your contributions were worthwhile because we could restore a sense of humanity to those in whom it had been trampled down by oppression and choked out by desperation.  In restoring dignity to their lives, equipping them with some knowledge of the skills and qualities of a good counselor, and facilitating their ownership this trauma care ministry, I sincerely believe that this sense of humanity will be restored to many others.

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, in the gospel of Luke, he quoted from Isaiah 61 in prophecy of the work he came into our world to accomplish: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news ot the poor.  He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives…to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.”  As a follower of Christ, I often ask myself whether the work I do is about the business of my Teacher.  As I listened to pastor after pastor share how they had been empowered by our presence, I felt (for the first time in a long time) as though Christ’s ministry was coming to life before my eyes.  God only knows where the work we began that week will lead, but as our collaboration continues over the years, I cannot wait to find out!

Hold on loosely, but don’t let go?

I think it is easy for us as Western educators in the developing world to underestimate the tenacity and capability of those we seek to aid.  As Kalen and I demonstrated some good (and bad!) counseling skills and character qualities in our first workshop, the pastors responded with insight and enthusiasm.  They broke apart everything I had intentionally done poorly, and went several steps beyond that!  (I think I’ll need to learn some more about counseling from them!)  I was amazed by the abundance of counseling experience and knowledge many of our “students” had already attained.  Our brothers and sisters had not only sacrificed to learn counseling skills from us, but also to build upon their existing knowledge and share it with one another.  The team truly was collaborative.  Everyone had something to learn from everyone.  Even those in the back (I started calling them “the peanut gallery”) who continually challenged that our skills must lead to solutions (while we wanted to focus on giving the client space to tell their story) emphasized African clients’ expectations to find solutions as a result of the counseling.  I realized I was inwardly resistant to these suggestions, and had to check myself.  If we really intended to collaborate, this would mean introducing some solutions-based therapies as well, in addition to our humanistic-oriented counseling skills.

So we altered our course for the third day and spoke about problem-focused counseling.  Heads in the peanut gallery began to nod fervently.  They were buying in!  Those who appreciated the importance of giving the client space to tell their story (my front row, “good students”) expressed the need for these skills as well.  We had reached consensus…and I noticed the peanut gallery members also gave their “clients” much space to talk during their mock therapy practice sessions.

I came into this project with the philosophy of that one 70’s rock band who said, “hold on loosely, but don’t let go.”  I don’t know if they were originally talking about their wives, LSD-inspired dreams, or what, but to me this had spoken great wisdom as I came to various cultures with loosely-laid plans for collaboratively developing a trauma care program with refugee church leaders.  We had some things in mind, and would give them plenty of space to take ownership of our model and propose changes, but I was still not letting go of what I thought would be a better approach (i.e. humanistic orientation, narrative therapy, etc.).  Today I learned that the mantra we need to engage in successful, cross-cultural, collaborative, mental health development (there’s a list of adjectives for you) is “hold on loosely, and be ready to let go.”

Leaving home

My first day in the Kakuma camp, I had a refugee man ask me how I could leave my wife of three months to come here to Kenya.  We both laughed, but I told him both my wife and I are excited to do counseling and missions work in the future, especially with refugees.  So she could not let me miss this opportunity!  Still, though, it is hard to leave my wife at home when we are so newly married.  I miss her very much, but had to leave her at home to come here.  The refugee man and I agreed sometimes we need to leave difficulties at home (for a time) to go and do the work God calls for us to do.  Later, I realized I have no understanding of what this can require.

Floods from rainfall in the Ugandan mountains washed through the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya the day before our collaborative training with United Refugee and Host Churches (URHC) began.  Torrents of water swept away more than 550 houses in the camp.  The amount of people killed in the process was not yet known.  It was a tragedy.  As we made our way to our meeting place in the camp the next morning, I found myself wondering how many pastors would even come.

But tragedy in the Kakuma camp is all too common, and in spite of the losses, many URHC leaders came full of expectation to our workshop that day.  One of the brothers began our time together with prayer, and I will not forget his words: “If we leave problems at home, let us leave them at home.”  What new meaning these words took on in this context!  In the states that may be an easy thing for us to do (okay not always easy…but easier done for us than for them!).  Although we had journeyed far and made sacrifices to come and co-labor with our refugee friends, now they were sacrificing valuable time to fix collapsed homes and assist hurting communities to come together with us these three mornings.  It was a humbling experience to be in the presence of men and women who were willing to make such sacrifices to work for the good of their churches.  If they were willing to take such pains to learn with us, I had confidence we would be leaving the program in good hands.  These people wanted to learn from us MUCH more than we even wanted them to learn from us!  It would be the first of many humbling experiences…

Next Steps

We are home going on three days now and adjusting back to central time.  Our focus is shifting to the next phase of this project, which is to build local capacity for trauma care.  Our aim is to equip the people in the camp to respond in a healthy and helpful way to the trauma among the refugees, and to do so by embedding that care into other programs as well as offering trauma informed pastoral care.  This will be a long term project.

I am going to add a new section to this blog and website: Trauma Care.  We will post our proposals and literature and write about the process of getting grants, engaging partners, and, if all goes well, implementing and then evaluating the program.  Our first step is to write a concept paper and get the support of the NGOs in the camp and UNHCR.  Our meetings with them in Kakuma went very well and all were very supportive, now to build on that and the other work we did last week…

Wrapping up the Week

Our last full day (Friday) was a whirlwind of activity.  We started the day by participating in the graduation ceremony at KISOM.  Each of us gave a short talk, then Ben, Kalen and I each gave out the diplomas and certificates to the three different graduating groups.

Graduation 2 Graduation





KISOM graduated 41 students, men and women.  I think the most significant part of it all for me was the way the students talked about the school giving them a sense of hope and purpose.  Rather than waiting for time to pass until they are resettled or repatriated, the students see themselves as actively preparing for the next step in their lives, whenever and wherever that may be.  It transforms the quality of their lives.

After the graduation we had to run off for a series of meetings, first with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), then International Rescue Committee and Jesuit Refugee Services.

We were very pleased with the support and interest we received from UNHCR, both in the study of URHC and in the prospect of building capacity for trauma care.  As we have said many times, the trauma care needs, and mental health care needs in general, are enormous and the resources do not begin to match the need.  This theme was repeated at IRC and JRS.  All are willing to review the concept note describing the program and provide feedback, and all are willing to collaborate with us if and when we return to do the program.  We wrapped up the day debriefing with Raphael at NCCK and Pastor Gaterra at URHC.  NCCK is willing to continue to host us for these projects, in addition to assisting IAFR, and suggested that if this is a long term engagement we might consider putting up our own building int he compound!  Now that would be interesting (even if unlikely) – Wheaton in Kakuma.

So now the rest of the work starts – reviewing all our interviews and developing an analysis of URHC, plus developing the trauma program and finding funding.   We will continue to post about our efforts as we move forward.



A Look Back

This afternoon, we take the long, bumpy road back to Lodwar so that we can fly back to Nairobi and then home. This trip has been valuable in many ways, some of which I’m sure I will not even come to realize until I have been back home for some time.

As a student, this trip has been an incredibly valuable learning opportunity. Not many students get the opportunity to go to another country to collect data. I have been able to be a part of the entire process – thinking through interview questions and preparing for the project, interviewing participants, meeting with various other groups and NGO’s to begin the process of collaboration, and I will eventually be a part of analyzing the qualitative data we have collected and planning for the second part of our project (the trauma project). To be able to see the research process through from beginning to end is a unique opportunity for me as a doctoral student who hopes to continue to be involved in research in some capacity throughout her career.

Further, this trip has been valuable personally. Although this has not been a “comfortable” trip per se (bugs diving into my food – I wish I was kidding, intense heat, goats being slaughtered right outside my door, etc.), the people I have met here have made it all worth it. I am learning so much from their example. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again: throughout all these people have endured and suffered, they remain the most joyful, generous, and faithful people I have ever met. It has been a personal, as well as a spiritual challenge. Complaining about my work load or student debt just doesn’t seem to be quite so problematic when you meet someone who has limited access to food and water, let alone education. It puts everything into perspective.

There is much that I have learned, much that I have gained, and much that I have yet to process. Thank you for being willing to go on this journey along with us. I hope you have gained something in the process, as well.

Field Trip: A student perspective

When I was in elementary and middle school, we always took field trips. These were supposed to be exciting experiences that gave us exposure to material that was taught during class. They deepened our understanding of history and science by providing tangible experiences to complement our assignments. As young children, we were always eager to have any excuse to get out of the classroom. I’m amazed how much hasn’t changed.

Although I find the analogy helpful, it would be a mistake to assume that this trip is merely a field trip. For centuries, there have been debates about the purpose of education and the best pedagogical methods to achieve them. I believe that education should be holistic; it is not merely the development of intellect and competence but also the shaping of a human being. This trip to Kakuma has been one of the healthiest educational experiences I’ve had in my entire life. I’ve grown in humility, had a chance to re-evaluate my priorities, and learned more about loving both my neighbors and enemies. Such experiences are few and far-between, and the novelty and extreme contrast to my life in the US only catalyzes my development.

The trip has also allowed me to develop not just as ethically and in my character but also as a professional. For instance, I now have a greater appreciation for cultural differences, sensitivity, and cultural competence. Classes like clinical interviewing become applicable as I perform semi-structured qualitative research and learn to expand different domains of inquiry while still allowing the interviewee freedom to respond as they wish. Even learning to display empathy in this setting provides a fresh set of challenges and opportunities for development.

Furthermore, I’ve gained much research experience. Although I have much, much more to learn, I feel significantly more confident in my understanding of qualitative research and interviewing skills than I did when I began. Equally important is my growing understanding of networking. For those (like myself) who intend to work with underserved populations, learning to collaborate with NGOs can be extremely useful. Program evaluation is essential. This project has already provided many opportunities to learn about these activities (and will continue to do so in the future).

Lastly, this project has given me more exposure to trauma. Although Wheaton does not currently have a trauma-track, I know that there are many of us who are deeply interested in trauma-related clinical work and research. Many of HDI’s projects offer opportunities to work with traumatized people, and this one is no exception. Although we are not providing therapy directly, we are still coming into contact with populations who have experienced overwhelming traumatic experiences.

To sum up, this experience has been far more than any ordinary field trip. It has built my character and deepened my understanding of material covered in class lectures. Frankly, I’ve never been happier to be a student. When I first started considering Wheaton, I knew that I was interested in international trauma work. When I applied, I discussed my desire to train lay counselors with skills for trauma care. When I decided to come, I never dreamed that I would have the opportunities to do so. In fact, I thought that I was going to have to forego my own plans out of necessity in order to develop competency necessary to do what I wanted to do. I am incredibly lucky to have been wrong.

Asekon = “Blessing Tree”

A tree in the middle of Kakuma 4. Temporary housing tents are on either side for recent arrivals.
A tree in the middle of Kakuma 4. Temporary housing tents are on either side for recent arrivals.

I keep trying to write a blog post, but haven’t been able to do so the last few days. My mind is so overwhelmed by all of the stories and when I sit down to write I’m not sure where to begin. Once I finally get something on paper, it feels inadequate. There is no real way to convey the kinds of things we are seeing and hearing here in Kakuma. We can show you pictures. We can write blog posts. We can tell you stories in person. It will never be enough. We can’t convey the hurt we have seen in people’s eyes and voices as they beg for food and water. Neither can we convey the joy we have felt in the churches that continue to praise God for all that He has done in their lives. It’s indescribable. All that to say, I apologize if my thoughts are a bit scattered as I write.

I have been given a Turkana name: Asekon. It means “blessing tree.”

The name was given to me by three wonderful Turkana women I interviewed the other morning. Yet I feel completely unworthy. If anything, these people have been a blessing to me by their example. They exude such joy and gratefulness for all that the Lord has done in their lives in the midst of poor living conditions often a great lack of resources. Most of all, their faith is remarkable.

Today, I also had the great honor of interviewing Pastor Gatera to hear about his own personal story, as well as the work that his church is doing. I hope to write up his story at some point in the near future, but I want to now briefly share about something he told me regarding women in the camp.

Most of the refugees in the camp are women and children, the most vulnerable of populations in Kakuma. The women often struggle to provide for their families, but can’t leave home to work because they need to be home taking care of their often many children. Many also do not have the skills necessary to run a small business and make an income. Instead, women often resort to prostitution in order to earn additional income. Some even sell their bodies for as little as 20 shillings (about 25 cents). Although Pastor Gatera and others in the church try to tell them about God and bring these women into the church, the women will often not come because they fear they will have to give up prostitution and will no longer have any source of income.

So many in the camp are in hopeless and desperate situations. Although Pastor Gatera sees this for himself, he has not lost hope. He has seen God provide in miraculous ways and remains faithful to God because He knows that God is always faithful and has seen God’s provision in his life time after time. It is because of this that he leads the URHC. This organization is doing incredible things both within the camp and in the community. For women in particular, they are being empowered by their churches within the URHC and are encouraging one another daily in the faith. Though their lives are far from easy, they have seen the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives and give away their lives to others as a result. They have found life and hope through the Word of God and share this with just about anyone who will listen. Their faith is exemplary.

I share this with you for a few reasons. First, to plead with you to pray for Kakuma, and now especially for South Sudan where many of the refugees are from. Secondly, to pray for the URHC, that they may continue in their ministries and that many more will come to faith as a result. Third, to encourage you in your own faith. These people have endured so much hardship, and yet they remain faithful to God and keep their focus on the blessings He has given them. As these faithful follower of Christ bless us with their stories and lives, may we also learn to be so faithful that we become asekon (a “blessing tree”) to others.

Christians, the Church, and Conflict Resolution

“First you take revenge, then you talk.” That is how someone described the way the local culture resolves conflict. If someone steals from you, it is a sign of weakness to confront them about the theft. Instead, you go steal from them first. Now that you are equals, you can go and confront them to settle the matter.

However, this methodology often results in escalating conflicts rather than resolutions. For example, if Person A steals a chicken from Person B, then the victim (B) becomes the perpetrator and steals one from Person A in return. However, it is possible that Person B might harm someone who tries to stop them during the attempt. If so, then the original thief (A) now needs to attack a member of B’s community in order to become equal. But if that person dies, Person B must now kill one of Person A’s group in response. Only then can they talk about resolving a conflict. Given the communal nature of African cultures, these conflicts quickly involve whole communities rather than just individuals.

URHC has involved itself heavily in conflict resolution in the community. Operating from their biblically-rooted perspective, the leaders of URHC emphasize two parts of the process: forgiveness and participation. Often, attempts fail because there is no true forgiveness, and reconciliation occurs only on the surface. According to pastors at URHC, however, true reconciliation requires repentance and forgiveness.

Recently, they have become involved at earlier and earlier stages in conflict. By improving communication, they work to avoid misunderstandings. By stopping conflicts before they escalate, they improve the conditions of the camp and the local community. By achieving unity and treating each group fairly, URCH has become a strong group of churches. By not playing favorites in conflict resolution, they have gained the respect and trust of the community.

As such, the church here is becoming an agent of unity. One young pastor put it simply: “We are all one in Christ as Christians.” Overcoming national, ethnic, gender, and denominational barriers is a component of these church’s understanding of the Gospel. The Bride of Christ is beautiful and lovely, and she is strong when she is not divided against herself.

Turkana Village

Discomfort is relative to what you have to compare it to.  This evening we had an enjoyable conversation with John Kesa of Lutheran World Federation.  John shared stories of his time in South Sudan, with its heat that makes your laptop quickly overheat, 60 kinds of mosquitoes, flying snakes (yes they are poisonous) and a rainy season that stops all movement for six months.  Kakuma is a life of comfort by comparison.  The rainy season starts in a few weeks, and when it does the conflict in South Sudan will slow or stop and the flow of refugees will slow to a trickle.  Until then, NCCK is trying to keep ahead of the 700+ people arriving every day.  Water is still a problem and tension is rising.

In the midst of all that we visited a local Turkana village that was home to the first Turkana church to join URHC.  Ben and Kalen got to work with Pastor Andrew and interviewed several church members.  Pastor AndrewWe will tell the full story later, but the bottom line is that they joined because they saw the value in working together, building trust, and acting as a community of churches rather than isolated little groups.  The power of this was seen in an event in 2006…


In 2006 a conflict developed in the Kakuma Refugee Camp between the people in the camp and the local Turkana community after a theft escalated and led to the deaths of four people.  (See   It helps to understand the seriousness of theft if you understand that in a pastoral community the livestock are all they have, and the people are fierce in protecting their animals.  Turkana VillageYou can get a sense of this from the photo, left, of a Turkana village.  The Kenyan government had to send in troops , fearing a major conflict would erupt.  NGOs in the camp worked together with pastors to stop the escalation.  According to Pastor Gaterra of URHC, the prevailing cultural norm is to seek revenge and discuss later.  Adding to that is the way communities will band together, taking on the conflict of a community member as their own.  Because URHC had built trust within both communities, Gaterra believed that it was able to stop the rumors that were adding to the conflict and instead communicate messages that helped deescalate the conflict.  This has been the pattern for URHC in many incidents, large and small – use communication tools to counter rumors, emphasize that it is a conflict between a few people, and intervene with those people in place of the community intervening (violently).  We expect to expand on those stories and practices over the next few days.