What I Learned: In a Congolese Refugee Camp

This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel.

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Jen Bradbury, writing about a Congolese refugee camp in western Rwanda.


Ask me to describe a refugee camp and I’ll start with the smell.

It’s the smell of far too many people living in far too small a space, without adequate sewage or opportunities to bathe. The smell is pungent and overwhelming. One whiff makes you want to run for the safety of your jeep, where you can roll up the windows, turn on the air conditioning, and receive a brief respite from a smell that’s so strong it makes you gag.

The smell speaks to the deplorable condition of life in a refugee camp – a place where people forced to flee their homeland for fear of their lives seek safety in a country that’s not their own.

I first visited a refugee camp in 2011 in western Rwanda. There, ~20,000 Congolese refugees live in Kiziba Refugee Camp. Many have done so for more than a decade. Though they can look across Lake Kivu and see their homeland, they know they cannot return there. To do so would mean being killed.

Despite this, refugees do not want our pity; They want our friendship. They are some of the most resilient and capable people I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting. From them, I’ve learned much, including the following six things.

  1. Poverty doesn’t mean you’re incapable. Far too often, we stereotype the poor. We think those who are poor are lazy people unable to solve their own problems. In actuality, my time in Kiziba taught me the opposite. Poverty doesn’t mean you’re incapable; It simply means you you have little or no money, goods, or means of support. In Kiziba, I met people living in extreme poverty who are incredibly capable. I witnessed their creativity, in the form of tools made with rudimentary supplies in order to better their lives. I saw visionary leadership as young people identified problems and found out-of-the-box solutions to them.
  1. Don’t do something someone can do for themselves. We rob people of their dignity and inherent sense of worth when we do what they can do for themselves. With that in mind, one of the best ways we can help people is by partnering with them. Aside from meeting physical needs, effective partnerships foster relationships, which meet another very real need for all involved. While in Kiziba, one example of an effective partnership I saw was between JCM (a group in the camp for refugee youth) and International Teams Rwanda. JCM realized that if they had a generator they could provide jobs for refugees in Kiziba that would provide them with a source of extra income, which they could then use to supplement their meager food rations from the United Nations. A generator would also enable them to provide much needed services to people in the camp. Knowing this, International Teams Rwanda gave JCM a generator, which they then used to create two businesses: A cell-phone charging station and a hair salon. International Teams partnered with JCM so as to allow them to solve the problems facing the camp. cell phone charging station
  1. Protect the vulnerable. At first glance, it seems that everyone living in a refugee camp is vulnerable. In many ways, they are. Yet, once you talk to refugees, it quickly becomes apparent that to them, two populations are particularly vulnerable: The elderly and the young. Those in the camp are committed to protecting these populations. For example, JCM runs a community garden and gives the produce to the elderly and the young. Even though every person in the camp could use additional food, those who have more are committed to serving the least of these.jcm garden
  1. Practice hospitality. Refugees in Kiziba live in mud and stick houses, covered by a UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) tarp. They’re smaller than many of the bathrooms found in the houses in my American community. Houses in Kiziba are typically 2-3 rooms: A common area plus one or two bedrooms. With no electricity, they’re dark even during the day. In many ways, they seem inhospitable. And yet, they’re not. Time and time again, refugees invited me into their home in Kiziba, saying, “You are welcome here.” Months later, when a refugee friend from Kiziba was resettled in the United States, he again flung open the door to his modest apartment, invited me in, and said, “You are welcome here.” As it turns out, hospitality is not being invited into a perfect house; It’s being invited to share the imperfect, messy realities of our lives with another person.
  1. Stories matter. Refugees often have no voice. They’ve faced severe persecution in their homeland and yet they’ve been largely ignored by the international community. Even so, their stories are powerful. Listening to them tell of their flight from their homeland honors those who didn’t survive and reminds them of El Roi – the God who sees, even when the rest of the world does not.
  1. There is always hope. It seems improbable that someone living in the squalor of a refugee camp for more than a decade would have hope. Yet, refugees do. During my time in Kiziba, I’d routinely ask refugees, “Where do you find hope?” or “What do you hope for?” What I heard is that despite the 20 year war that still rages in the Congo, refugees hope for peace. They believe theirs is the most beautiful country in the world and that God cares deeply for it and for them. Through it all, they find hope in Jesus, who sustains them.

To be sure, I will never forget the stench of Kiziba… But I will also never forget the six lessons that the refugees living there taught me.

jen bradburyJen Bradbury (@ymjen) is a career youth worker who currently serves as the Youth Director at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, IL. Her writing has appeared in The Christian Century, Youth Worker Journal, and Immerse. She’s also the author of the forthcoming book, The Jesus Gap and a frequent blogger at ymjen.com

What I Learned: How Pregnancy Brought Us Together

This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel (this is the last scheduled post, though is appears some emails have not come through. If you tried to contact me and didn’t hear back, please try again).

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Whitney Conard, writing about pregnancy in Cambodia. As a fellow expat who has been pregnant, scared about being pregnant, and given birth in a foreign country, I can relate to so much about this essay.


A year ago this month, I did something I swore I’d never do in Cambodia: I got pregnant. And now I can’t imagine a better ending to the story of our three years here.

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In 2011, my husband and I moved to Cambodia to work with a non-government organization. We both agreed that Cambodia seemed like a good choice for long-term work and starting a family. My husband eventually signed contracts for three years.

But when we arrived in our new hometown of Poipet, a dusty, crowded, sprawling border town on the edge of Cambodia, I quickly decided having children here was the last thing I wanted.

Staying home with a baby – the only choice since there weren’t any viable childcare options – sounded isolating. There were no other young expat couples having babies. And I couldn’t imagine giving up my work as a nurse to stay home with a baby. I was afraid I’d be shut away from a life I found rewarding.

Every day, someone asked me when I was having a baby. I laughingly replied, “Next year’; always, next year. And people began to ask me, are you ever going to have children? Are you on birth control? Is something wrong?

I found it difficult to explain to them I was afraid to have a child here. I feared what it meant for my identity. I thought if the child got sick, I wouldn’t be able to give him the care he needed. The closest international-standard hospital was two hours away.

However, living here changed me. Slowly but surely, the culture broke down my resistance. God showed me that my hesitations to have a child here were based on fear. My husband and I realized becoming parents would give us better insight into Cambodian culture and help us understand the people around us. I knew it would be difficult, but we thought, why not give it a try? And less than two months after that, I was pregnant.

Pregnancy changed everything about how Cambodians related to me. They no longer saw me as a white stranger who wore different clothes and had a funny accent. They saw me as a fellow woman, who had a life growing inside of her, who was experiencing the same morning sickness, the aching back, and the fatigue they all felt as they bore children.

My pregnancy gave me a new way to connect with Cambodian women. Old Cambodian women would stop me on the street and ask me how many months along I was. They placed their hands lovingly on my stomach, eyes shining with memories of their own pregnancies. They too had experienced the pain and terror of the birth, and the unspeakably beautiful joy of holding their children in their arms.

Several of my neighbors and friends were also pregnant at the same time, and it gave us something new to talk about. I learned new Khmer words for nausea, babies, and pregnancy. It was fascinating to see how differently we dealt with the changes our bodies and emotions went through.

One month, I taught a newborn care class with a friend and a few of her neighbors. We talked about traditional Cambodian postnatal practices, like lying on a bed over a fire to heal the body after birth (called ‘ang pleung’ or ‘roasting’) and drinking rice wine. I encouraged them to find healthy ways of doing traditions that were meaningful to them.

In turn, they gave me tips on how to stay healthy – what foods to eat and what to avoid. They scolded me when they saw me carrying a package of water bottles, saying it was too heavy, despite the fact I was barely four months pregnant. They coddled me and made sure I rested – a new experience for this type-A overachiever.

My Khmer friends started wearing baggy floral shirts long before they started showing, while I continued wearing my regular t-shirts and stretchy pants into my third trimester. They reproached me for wearing “tight clothes”, saying it was bad for the baby. The other pregnant women watched me walking briskly up and down our dirt road every evening. They were shocked when I told them it was ok to exercise, even good.

After we gave birth in February 2014, our new son created even more opportunities for relationships with our neighbors. We compare our baby’s sizes, and they laugh at how bald my blue-eyed baby is. Our “aunties” watch the baby and fuss over him like he’s one of their own grandchildren.

I still feel like an outsider much of the time. Yet having a baby here has broken down barriers between Cambodians and myself. We learned from each other, as we became pregnant, then new mothers.

The love for our children bound us together in ways that went beyond culture. Maybe they expressed it in different ways, with traditions I don’t understand. But I know these traditions were done out of a love for their children and a desire for restored harmony with their own bodies and their community.

It made me realize how much I share in common with the women here, despite our differences – a valuable lesson I’m thankful for.

profile photo 2Whitney Conard is a tea-drinking, extroverted book nerd and travel junkie who loves Jesus. She hails from Kansas City, USA and lives in Poipet, Cambodia with her husband and son. You can find her blogging about faith, family, and life abroad at http://www.journey-mercies.com.

What I Learned: Culture Shock is Like Rock Climbing

This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel (there is one more scheduled post coming up and then, unless I hear from you, the series will close, but if you have an essay in the future that you feel might be a good fit, feel free to contact me).

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Heidi Thulin, writing from Kenya about culture shock and rock climbing in her first year in Africa.


I stood in the shade of a gigantic cliff at Hell’s Gate National Park, a harness strapped around my waist and my fingers fidgeting nervously with my hair. We had come to do some filming for an outdoorsman ministry, and after we’d conducted interviews and gathered several hours of B-roll, they said we could give rock climbing a try.

The borrowed climbing shoes felt foreign on my feet, and I bounced lightly on my toes while my belayer secured knots and gave me a quiet pep talk. I had never climbed a real cliff before, only a cement rock wall speckled with color-coded handholds. And that was ten years ago.

I was pretty nervous–but the excited kind–and I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t conquer this rock.

Raising my hands above my head, I felt the smoothness and the roughness of the red-brown rock and lifted my foot into a crack. Then my other foot, push, then hand navigation, pull. Straining one part of my body at a time. And slowly, I rose above the crowd.

About halfway up, I got stuck. The rocks all around me felt too smooth, my arms felt too weak, and I was too quick to call down and say I was done. “No, you’re not,” my belayer called back. “You’re almost there! You’re at the hardest part, but you’ll soon pass it.”

I suppressed a panicked laugh and pressed myself against the cliff. It felt cold on my skin and the distance above me looked daunting. I shifted my weight, my foot slipped, I gasped. But the rope supported me. Up until that moment, I hadn’t truly believed I could trust in that rope, but now I knew I was not alone and that I could finish the climb.



Taking a deep breath, I grappled around for a handhold and slipped with my feet until it rested on a small ledge. Below me, people cheered. I had only six feet to go. With renewed vigor and a triumphant smile, I scurried up the rest of the rock and dangled restfully from my rope. My arms hurt in new places, but my heart was beating happily. I did it!

I looked down then and was shocked by the distance I’d traveled. My small husband gazed up at me, smiled, and took a photo. My belayer gave me a thumbs-up and said, “Now I will let you come down.”


My husband and I are more than halfway through our first term in Nairobi, Kenya, and in some ways, this leg of the journey is harder than the first. On some occasions, I’ve had to physically leave the house to prevent me from packing up all our belonging and booking the next flight back to the States. But God taught me a special lesson that day I conquered the rock wall. A lesson that I desperately needed to learn.

Culture shock is like rock climbing. You need take the journey one handhold and foothold at a time. You require encouragement from those with a different perspective. You develop new problem-solving skills and stretch your already-sore muscles. But if you trust in the rope that holds you up, you’ll find relief and smiles at the top of the cliff and, with slight disbelief, you’ll look down and realize just how far you’ve come.

Therefore, I can do this overseas life. Even when I’m confused and don’t know how to move forward, even when my heart (and stomach) hurts in uncommon ways, even when I want to give up. I have the hope that, one day, I will look back at this time of struggle and unpleasantness and be surprised (and maybe impressed) by my progress. I will see how God gave me the strength for each small step and how each of those small steps turned into a grand journey.

By the end, I will be a new person, a person transformed and strong, and I will celebrate my journey with a smile.


heidi thulinHeidi Thulin is a staff writer for an On-Field Media team in Kenya. She and her videographer husband work in Nairobi. They’ve greatly enjoyed traveling together, tossing ideas around with their creative team, and catching glimpses of the everyday lives and work of their fellow expatriates. She loves her Saturday mornings filled with a good book, a cup of hot chai (with plenty of sugar), and the company of her Kenyan mutt.


What I Learned: Raising a Special Needs Third Culture Kid

This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel (there is one more scheduled post coming up and then, unless I hear from you, the series will close, but if you have an essay in the future that you feel might be a good fit, feel free to contact me).

Today’s What I Learned post comes from MaDonna Maurer (who wrote about being married to a TCK for the Painting Pictures series), writing about raising a daughter with mental and physical disabilities in Taiwan. Can I just say how much I love this post?


Diversity seems to flow easily inside the doors of an international school. Many have called these walled-establishments little United Nations. It’s no wonder they have this description. Once you step through the doors you see and hear the various cultures that make up our world. The expat community lends itself to diversity, but once you exit what I will call the “expat bubble” you’ll discover that the only diversity you may find is yourself.

I have found this to be true here in Taiwan. Among the expat community I know how to float in and out of conversations. I understand the lingo, the hardships, and the coming and goings of the community. Learning how to function in the community of the culture you are living in can take some time, especially if you have a child with special needs.

My daughter was diagnosed when she was ten-months old with Cri-du-Chat Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes mental and physical disabilities. Along with the diagnosis, she was given a feeding tube – overnight we became a different family. We were already living in mainland China, and amazingly we were encouraged by all the health professionals and family to return. After a few years we moved to Taipei where she would have better access to therapy. Moving to Taipei, though still took time to adjust, was a smoother transition just because of the healthcare system.

My daughter is ten-years old now and no longer has a feeding tube. We still travel between Taiwan and Germany or Taiwan and the US, depending on the year. In these ten years I have learned a few things about traveling with a child with special needs and about life in general.

madonna maurer2

1. I am not alone. First, we are not the only people that live overseas with a child with special needs. There are others. Second, which isn’t too surprising, but since the diagnosis it seems that I just “see” others with special needs. I know they were there before, but I believe that God has made me more aware – especially here in Asia where disability is more often hidden.

2. Give Grace I know how easy it is to be offended by certain words and odd looks. I know how angry I can get by comments made about someone with special needs. I can become that protective mama bear ready to strike out at anyone – but God has been teaching me (notice, I’m still learning!) to give grace. Sometimes that is a silent prayer, other times it is quietly in love telling the person what their words mean. I’ve found that most have no clue and are truly apologetic for it. I’ve also found that some questions are just purely that: a question. They just want to know, but didn’t phrase it quite right (sometimes this is a culture-clash). I’m learning to answer with grace. Do I get it right every time? No, but I’m in the process of it…

madonna maurer1

3. The beauty of a smile Having someone say hello to my daughter and to talk to her, not me, is a HUGE gift. I’ve come to realize that people with special needs want to be talked to directly – even if they can’t respond back. When we stop and speak (just say Hi!) to someone with special needs we recognize that they are human – not just a statue that takes up space. And the impact you have on the parent by that small act of kindness speaks volumes. I know from experience.

4. Churches are empty The most noticeable issue I see in most churches is what I don’t see. I don’t see too many people with special needs in church. This is something I’ve seen in every country I’ve visited. Why is this? I don’t have a researched answer, but from my experience it seems that people do not know what to do with my family. They want to help, but not sure how. They feel unqualified to teach a child with special needs. The congregation may feel that the person is too disruptive…read #3 again, they are fearfully and wonderfully made, too (Ps. 139:14)!

Diversity is so much more than the color of ones skin or the various cultures of the world. As I’m living this expat life, I’m learning more about what that means as a family with disabilities. I could easily say that my daughter is teaching me, but really it is God teaching me through her about the special needs community and my response to his diverse world.


maDonna MaurerYou can read more from MaDonna Maurer on her blog www.raisingtcks.com and find her on Twitter 

What I Learned: European vs. Global TCK

This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel.

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Olga Mecking, writing about her discovery of being a Third Culture Kid, specifically a European TCK who remained in Europe and coming to terms with her heritage.


Finding out that I am a TCK was a revelation. While I never minded not fitting anywhere (being socially awkward does that to you eventually), I still thought it would be nice to belong somewhere, anywhere, for a change.

The term TCK resonated with me. I started reading books, blogs, joined TCK groups on Facebook. And again I felt this familiar thud: “You’re not one of us.” I begun to question whether I am really a TCK: after all, as a child, I only moved once- to Germany where we stayed for 2 years. However, I lived in different countries as an adult: Germany (again), France, Canada (the only non-European country where I had lived), and now the Netherlands. I didn’t really have a culture-related identity crisis. The only one I had was when I became a mother and that was, as I’ve come to think, in no way related to my move to the Netherlands.

And this is when I realized that most of the countries I’ve lived in so far were European (with the exception of Canada). Where most TCK’s have lived all over the world, I hardly ever left Europe.

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Don’t get me wrong. My experiences are still far beyond the ordinary. I come from a family that is impossible to describe without mentioning multiple countries and languages. I travelled a lot as a child. I see myself as a European, and that already includes multiple countries, cultures and languages. Like many TCK’s, my answer to the question “Where are you from” is never easy, and I know that one can have many homes, or even various ideas of what home actually is.

Compared to someone who has never left Poland, my experiences felt extremely global. They weren’t. I don’t think I would ever become aware of this if I didn’t start a blog- called, of course, The European Mama, and met other bloggers, who were not living in Europe.

I wouldn’t even have considered issues such as being white in a mostly “black” country, facing poverty, or being a woman in a culture that is not entirely woman-friendly. And that’s already the tip of an iceberg of things I am neither familiar, nor entirely comfortable with.

I have always known that I have a nice comfortable life, but haven’t realized how easy it really is. It was blogs such as Djibouti Jones and World Moms Blog that really opened my eyes.

european tck2

It’s not easy to write these words. I am of course very privileged, even more so in that I live in the Netherlands, a country where a woman has a wide support network of daycares, free check-ups and vaccinations for her children. Women can work part-time (although there is little pressure to work full time), but whatever they decide, the support is there.

My husband has a rather secure, well paid job. I could work if I wanted to, but I don’t have to. On the other hand, I am extremely lucky to be able to send my children to daycare so that they can learn Dutch.

Which brings me back to my multicultural and multilingual family. My children are growing up with three languages: Polish, German and Dutch. My eldest even picks up English from her English-speaking friends. To me, this is nothing unusual; it’s how I was raised as well.

I am constantly being made aware of this richness, each time I’m being asked, “Where are you from?” because this question requires considering what the other person is asking. It could mean: “where were you born?” (Poland), or maybe “where did you live before you came here” (Germany), or maybe sometimes, “where do you live?” (The Hague area, we get asked this when we go to other parts of the Netherlands).

While I know I am privileged in comparison to some, not everyone is tolerant about my home country, Poland. If it hadn’t been for my German husband, I’d be facing stereotypes about Polish people, but with my knowledge of German (the Dutch tell me my accent sounds German), and my German last name, I pass for a German here. Germans are not necessarily the Dutch people’s favourite but they’re still considered higher up on the “cultural ladder” than Polish people (who, in turn, are seen as better than Bulgarians, Rumanians, etc). And yet in Poland I am told that I am not Polish enough.

I guess my heritage, and with that, my identity is at the same time extremely complex, and somewhat limited all at the same time; that I can embrace the complexity and work on the limitations. That being European (or should I say, the right kind of European) comes with a privilege.

But I also can’t deny that Europe has become my home. In fact, it has always been my home, I just wasn’t so aware of this. It’s a big home on one hand and a small home on the other, but it’s just right for me.

olga mecking1Olga Mecking is a Polish woman living with her German husband in The Netherlands where they raise three trilingual children. She blogs about her experiences on The European Mama, a blog about raising multilingual children, living abroad, and parenting. She can be found on FacebookTwitterPinterestand Instagram. She is also a regular contributor to World Moms Blog,BLUNTmoms and Multicultural Kid Blogs.

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