TRAUMA – Refugees, The Pastor and The Church

Rev Steve Smith

The Story

They walk quietly into church. Colourful clothes and gentle smiles mark their demeanour. I have seen them at Footscray and in WA. They are African refugees and migrants who have fled from war & violence.

They have come from villages and cities.

But for the last 15 – 20 years their homes have been refugee camps. Shelters built with their own hands and wrapped in plastic given by UNHCR. They have gardened on small portions of land and brought water from rivers and wells under constant fear of molestation. The women, always moving in groups, are fearful to send their children to do small tasks.

They are glad to be here despite the whole new handful of problems like English, housing and employment.

As Pastor it has been my privilege to visit them in their homes. As I enter homes the first thing I notice is a TV screen. Songs, drama, stories and worship fill the screens. Colour and exuberant drama strike the attention in those early visits plus the most basic furniture.

Following visits reveal the gradual acquisition of necessities. Hospitality orange juice, coke, Fanta and various simple foods are presented. There are always children, and children carrying children!

In the home after a few visits, the shyness drops away and personalities appear. Early conversations are around English classes, accommodation, employment and relatives – relatives in the camps or others who survived the violence. Most camp mates are still there hoping to be able to escape the confinement Fears of incursions into the camps, to harm them, were always present.

The church had been a vital feature of camp life. Without prayer, worship, teaching and camp friends and networks, life would have been unbearable. God has been present.

Trauma stories only slowly emerge from these seemly very ordinary folk in their beautiful clothes and smiling faces. A father shot dead in front of his 6 year old son while the rest of the family was away visiting relatives. Escape through the forest or jungles and over the border into Thailand or French speaking Guinea – fears of soldiers or guerillas harming them. The “safe havens” that were not so safe; especially for women and children who are widows and orphans. The news that reached them of the destruction of life and property in their home towns and villages. The long years of no news about lost family members. Current family members sick and dying but for them no way to go back. Scattered friends from camp life now resettled in Norway or USA and the different rules and regulation that impact on all refugees’ lives.

They are glad to be here. Whatever the problems now, life is good. God has been very good to them. Their children can grow up in peace with opportunity. Every visit ends with Bible reading and prayer.

Now they are safe but a whole new set of situations confront them. They are part of the 1% who go to a third country.

They are resilient people but we can help, as they join our worshipping communities. The churches in the camps have been their lifeline. As I saw in Thailand, in Perth and here in Footscray, they love to sing. Singing has helped to sustain their spirits. They have prayed, been taught the scriptures and nurtured their emerging leaders.

Now their singing lifts our spirits.

Let us travel forward with them, into their new future; one they still can hardly believe.

Let us praise God together!

Refugee Trauma
  • war
  • terrorism
  • violence
  • rape
  • murder
  • execution
  • disease
  • suicide
  • livelihood gone
  • identity loss
  • Emotional
            • anxiety
            • isolation
            • anger
            • numbness, guilt
  • Thoughts
            • flashbacks
            • relive experiences
            • nightmares
            • blame
            • hyper vigilance
            • disorientation
  • Physical
            • shock
            • dizziness
            • headaches
            • fatigue
            • chest pains
            • injuries
What can we do?
  1. Listen carefully with deep attention.
  2. Respect their stories & their time to tell.
  3. Offer help.
  4. Spend time with the people.
  5. Allow for private time & for rest.
  6. Allow for anger
  7. Pray
  8. Welcome their children.
  9. Offer participation opportunities in church.
  10. Do not say; “You are lucky”