Mary* remembers what she saw the first day she climbed those six flights of stairs and stepped inside the church at the top. It wasn’t merely the gathering of refugee women that struck her, nor the children playing and making crafts, or even the outreach volunteers offering hot drinks and a meal. What Mary found that morning was a deeper, simpler reality that most would overlook. But then again, most people don’t see through the eyes of a refugee who has lost nearly everything.
“I saw people like me, ” Mary remembers with the glimmer of that day’s hope still reflected in her dark brown eyes. “I saw people who spoke my language, people who had problems like me.”
What Mary found at the top of the stairs that morning was something that every displaced person on earth longs for: someone who understands. And those at International Teams hope that is precisely what the Monday morning program for refugee mothers and children can be; a place for women to find the tangible help, encouragement, and support they so desperately need in the midst of their often-tumultuous lives.
Every year, thousands of refugees from across the Middle East and Africa pour into this major eastern European gateway city** that migrants hope and pray will offer them a doorway to a better life in Europe or America. For some, that dream becomes a reality, while others remain in the snares of a complex and unpredictable system for years on end.
Mary’s journey to the sixth floor that Monday morning truly began over a year ago, when civil war in the Ivory Coast came crashing through her door. On that day, the world she had always known was ripped from her hands as a group of armed men attacked her family and beat her husband to death. “After that day, I never saw my husband again,” she says. Mary’s life was spared, but her trials were far from over.
“Two months later those men kidnapped me and took me to a house out in the bush,” she remembers with a distant look in her eyes. “They locked me inside for 5 months. They hurt me and gave me only water and bread.” To Mary, the fact that she is even alive today is a miracle. “I thought I would die in that house,” she recalls. “But one day, I escaped. I know it is God that saved me that day.”
That was eight months ago but Mary’s fight is far from over. Now she finds herself a refugee, three thousand miles from home with a young child in an unfamiliar city. For many refugees, the amalgam of a traumatic past and desperately uncertain future can be a breeding ground for hopelessness. “Mary was very sad and withdrawn when I first met her,” says one worker with International Teams that has reached out to the Ivory Coast native. “But since then, I’ve seen her grow so much. She’s just a different person altogether now. So much more joyful.”
For Mary and so many other refugee women, a simple glimmer of hope can change everything. Amid the medley of English, Turkish, Farsi, and French that fills the room during those Monday morning outreach gatherings, there is a homelike aura as children play, women chat, and coffee is served. Through the program, women and children are also able to see a nurse for basic medical needs, speak with volunteers about their situation, and receive a simple meal, which for many may be their best meal of the week. In that room, with women from diverse backgrounds, languages, faiths, and families, there is a simple, humanizing stability that comes as people who understand one another interact.
For refugees like Mary, it’s the difference between feeling isolated and feeling supported, and it can make a world of difference. Through relationships she built during the Monday morning program for mothers and children, Mary has been able to find a good living situation as well as part time job to help her stand on her own feet as she wades through the U.N. legal process. “I am very grateful,” she says. “They give me support with my baby, which is so important, and they have taught me many things.”
But ultimately, Mary knows it isn’t programs or services that have led her thus far. It is the Lord, and each day she is reminded by her 6-month-old son, Jean Emmanuel.
“That’s why I gave him that name,” Mary says. “God is with me.”
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Please pray for Mary and women like her in this eastern European city. Pray that they would find the support, comfort, and hope that they so desperately need. And pray for the workers with International Teams, that they would have wisdom, grace, and overflowing love as they seek to grow the program in the best possible way to respond to the overwhelming needs.
*This name has been changed due to the sensitive circumstances in which most refugees find themselves.
**This location has intentionally been left obscure.