the joys and challenges of working with refugees, part two

Dadaab Refugee Camp, Kenya

Written by Dena Dyer

I'm a wife, mom, author, communications director and speaker who enjoys encouraging my fellow women through all types of media.

January 19, 2012

Dadaab Refugee Camp, Kenya

[serialposts]Over the past year, as I’ve had a crash course in refugee resettlement, I’ve learned so much. I am grateful every day for the stories I’ve heard and the facts I’ve gleaned about this vulnerable, misunderstood, and often forgotten population.

I’ve learned:

  • That only one percent of the 14 million-plus refugees in the world will ever be resettled.
  • That many of our planet’s refugees languish in camps for years, if not decades. Catholic Family Service employs one interpreter who was born, raised, married, AND had a child in a camp in Burma.
  • How crowded and dangerous some of the camps are. (Research Dadaab camp in Kenya to see what I mean). One of the families I’ve met spent eighteen years in Dadaab, where all five of their boys were raised. The mom woke up at 4 in the morning to get in line for water, and sometimes she still went back to their tent empty-handed. The family received rations every two weeks, but the meager corn, rice and would only last for one.
  • How extremely difficult it is to start over in a new place when you don’t know the language—and you may not even know what a toilet, light switch, or refrigerator is!
  • That refugees pay taxes and have to pay back the government for the flights that brought them here.
  • How many of the refugees send money—often earned by working long hours at physicall-taxing jobs—back to their loved ones in camps.
  • That most of our U.S. population doesn’t know about refugee resettlement and thinks refugees are illegal immigrants. In fact, they are legally here by a mandate of the government and can hold a job, open a business, and attend school. After one year, they apply for a green card, and after five years, they can take the test to become a citizen.
  • How resilient refugees are. They are hard-working, grateful, resourceful people who only want a chance at safety and freedom. One of my co-workers always has a smile on his face, and loves working as a case manager for new arrivals. You’d never know that his entire family was massacred in Rwanda during the genocide in the 90’s. Out of forty family members, only he survived. His continued faith in God inspires and convicts me daily.

Working with refugees can be challenging–especially emotionally. We hear stories of rape, torture, and starvation on a regular basis. I want to adopt every barefoot child of war that comes into our offices. And I long to throw my arms every dark-skinned woman I meet who has only known oppression and hatred. These precious daughters of God treasure something as small as a piece of paper stating they’ve come to one of our English classes for twelve weeks.

But oh, the joys. There’s nothing like watching a group of teenagers play soccer with a multi-colored group of kids or connecting a former teacher with a group of Burmese adults who’ve never held a pencil. More often than not, our volunteers continue helping us long-term, because they fall in love with the beautiful people they’re serving.

One volunteer in particular, who had struggled with depression and was almost homebound by anxiety before she started regularly helping out in ESL classes, has become a champion for refugees. She calls them “my people” and talks about them to everyone she meets. “They changed my life,” she says.

I know what she means.


  1. Diana Trautwein

    Dena – this is just beautiful. Thank you so much for gathering this info into one wonderful list – what a jolt to see how much I don’t know. Blessings as you continue to be God’s hands, smile, heart in this work you do. 

  2. Sheila Seiler Lagrand


    This just undoes me. Thank you for filling in the picture so I could really understand the ugly details. 

    God bless them. God bless you. 

  3. Deidra

    I have learned so much over the past four years, as hundreds of Burmese refugees have made their way to our church. Two things I’ve learned – 1) Refugees are some of the most generous people I’ve ever met. 2) To make a difference, I’ve got to go to them, instead of waiting for them to come to me.

  4. KLP

    Both my mother and my husband came to the United States as refugees. (Mom from Cuba…. husband from Bosnia.) I’m grateful everyday for the people and the services who made their resettlement possible. 🙂

  5. Joanne Norton

    I am heavily involved with Bhutanese refugees here in Omaha.  They were dropped into my life 1-1/2 years ago.  I’m within a short distance — 1.5 blocks to 3 miles — with nearly all of them.  Started with 2 family members and now have about 50 extended family… 4 coming tomorrow who were supposed to be here today but are stuck in NYC.  I help in just about any way that is needed… clothes, cleaning [YES teaching how to use the fridge, stove, thermostat, toilet (especially when the toilet might keep running), and so much of what you listed.  They work SO hard and weren’t able to work til they got here, so it’s overwhelming to them and their families.  [Bhutanese were in Nepal for about 22 years, so some of my kids were just toddlers or the oldest of about 10; many born in the camps.]  My husband and I were missionaries in Uganda the same year Rwanda’s horrific events occurred.  I know a lot [too much] about that, too.

    Thank you so much for posting this.  I need to thank my friend who forwarded it to me, b/c she knew I’d understand what you are mentioning and, as she said, “could relate.”

  6. Joanne Norton

    I just reread what I wrote.  This needs a clearer explanation:

    Bhutanese were in Nepal for about 22 years, so some of my kids were just
    toddlers or the oldest of about 10; many born in the camps.] 

    Some of my ADULT “kids” were toddlers or up to 10 when their families fled Bhutan for Nepal; some of my other kids (up to early 20s) were born in Nepal refugee camps.

    That should be better.  Sorry.  When I read your post my adrenalin kicked in and my brain fingers couldn’t move as fast as my brain!

  7. Nikole Hahn

    Sounds like that ministry impacts the volunteer more than the refugee. Wow.


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the joys and challenges of working with refugees, part two

by Dena Dyer time to read: 3 min