On this blog, I try to share both my thoughts and those of others standing for welcome at LIRS and nationwide. Today, I’d like to introduce an interview by Luke Telander, Program Associate for Outreach at LIRS, with Rev. Dr. Yohannes Mengsteab, Director of Ministry Programs at the Lutheran Foundation.
This World Refugee Day, former refugees from all over the country are descending on Capitol Hill to tell their representatives that they support fair and humane immigration reform that promotes a robust refugee resettlement program. These refugee leaders will meet with a diverse group of congressional delegations, telling their stories as former refugees, and sharing why our country is strengthened by opening its doors to refugees. They’ll also be honored for their strength and service at the Walk of Courage Award Dinner.
Rev. Dr. Yohannes Mengsteab, a former refugee from Eritrea, an influential faith leader, and a strong voice for justice for migrants and refugees, is one of the refugee leaders coming to the capital this World Refugee Day. I was lucky enough to catch up with him via an email interview. Here are his thoughts and motivations, and stay tuned for more interviews with refugee leaders on our blog as we prepare for World Refugee Day.
Luke Telander (LT): What drives you to advocate for the rights of migrants and refugees?
Rev. Dr. Yohannes Mengsteab (YM): The Lord told the Israelites in Exodus 22:21, “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” I cannot forget where I came from. I was a foreigner in the Sudan, and witnessed the mistreatment of the refugees and migrants, especially those without permit. I hear of the Eritrean refugees and migrants who are mistreated in the Sinai Desert and Israel these days, and I know some of those mistreated by name; they are relatives and relatives of friends. I know what it is like to be forced out of the country you love and linger in somebody’s country as “no body.” I have been given a second chance by very generous country and people, and I cannot help myself but follow their example. So the least I can do in service of those who are migrants and refugees is add my voice with those who have dared to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.
LT: Can you tell us a little bit about your story of coming to the US as a refugee?
YM: I left Eritrea, then part of Ethiopia, in 1980 during the Communist and Eritrean-Ethiopian war. I was a member of the Eritrean Liberation Front, and our group was pushed out of the country into the Sudan in the Summer of 1980. We were kept at a concentration camp from where my friend and I escaped and entered the city of Kassala, a border Sudanese city with Eritrea. I used to tell this part of my story in code words for fear of repercussions to my extended family back home in Ethiopia/Eritrea at that time; I am glad I can tell the world in plain words now.
I then lived in the Sudan near one of the refugee camps for 2 and half years, where I also did my continuing ed to graduate from high school. Through the UNHCR and JVA, I was one of those privileged who was given the opportunity to resettle in the United States in 1983. I have gone to college and Seminary since then and served as parish pastor in Holland Michigan, church planter and national counselor for African Immigrant Ministry in Washington DC, national director for urban and specialized ministries, and church planting in The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.
My initial years, as a refugee in the United States, were exciting in some respect, but also very challenging in another. I was very adventuresome and eager to use all the opportunities that this country has to offer. I arrived in June and went to college in August. I had a very clear vision of using my time wisely to become a contributing member of society for my sake and the sake of my extended family. The challenge I had was that in the midst of hundreds of acquaintances and some friends, I felt so alone. I had no hope of ever seeing my extended family; the separation seemed permanent. There were times when I even questioned the meaning of life. I was living in a land that flowed with milk and honey (figuratively and literally), and my extended family was in constant danger. I remember the urge of just going back and joining the fight again to free my people and country from the tyranny of Communism.
Thank God for a very welcoming community at Concordia College Bronxville, New York. Kevin Kook, Drs. Riem, Boeckler, Green, Hennings, Schultz (then the president of the college), Ross, Peterson, Temme, Miesner and my good friend Dr. Viji George (current president of the college) showed special interest in me, and, even without me knowing it, they cared for me in a way that I will never be able to repay them. My classmates, especially the preseminary students and their now wives, became my extended family. They took me to their homes for Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving. And they adopted me as their brother and their parents as their son. They truly were my welcoming community. And that made a huge difference in my life and made me the leader that I am at this time.
LT: Why have you chosen to be a part of the Refugee Alumni Network and give back to newly arrived refugees?
YM: As I have stated in answer to your previous questions, I have been blessed by the generosity of many kind people, the least I can do is join their cause to make a difference in the lives of the vulnerable migrants and refugees in our time. It is also who I am; I am a refugee who has been given a second chance. Joining the many other refugees who have been blessed as I am is the right thing to do. We can collectively do more than we can ever do individually.
The cries of those who are lingering in refugee camps, who are the victims of human trafficking, and corrupt governments needs to be amplified by those of us who live in freedom. We have the ability to cry for those whose cries are not heard by those in power, to demand dignity and respect of human life for those whose lives are in constant danger. It is also proper that I join my fellow refugee alumni to welcome those who are privileged to join us in the land of the free, show them the way so that they may be able to use all the gifts that this great nation has to offer.
LT: This World Refugee Day, what do you think the message to the world should be?
YM: This is a very interesting question. As a revolutionary, I could say let us rise and destroy any form of tyranny that devalues human life and strips people from their God given freedom. But violence always begets violence. My call to the world will be focused on one person at a time; I would call each individual to make his/her circle of influence a welcoming circle of influence. This would have a greater and long lasting impact than any kind of justice that comes through the barrel of a gun or any type of violence.
However, I also am very realistic that injustice will always be around us. Corrupt governments will always be there if unchecked. Self-serving leaders will always arise if not held accountable. So I call on the world community to hold governments and leaders that are causing the flow of refugees and migrants accountable. Human rights should not be a rarity but just what it is, the inalienable, God given right of a person.
I also would call on the world to stop human trafficking and the exploitation of vulnerable migrants and refugees. It is a shame that any human being would be sold as a slave in the 21st century. It is a crime that any human being would be harvested for his organs, and the “haves” would buy body parts, what is harvested from the vulnerable against his/her will, so that they may live longer while the other suffers or dies. The world community has the ability to stop this by either stopping the sources of these massive human migrations or by giving those who are forced out of their homes safe passages to safer places.
LT: What do you think is the most widely misunderstood fact about refugees and resettlement?
YM: I think the most widely misunderstood fact about refugees is the thought that they come “to our country” to take our jobs; use our stressed social service programs or national resources. It is always good to remember Exodus 22:21. Human migration is a human story. All people groups have migrated from one place to the other in their history, so our time and generation is no different than the previous. It is a human story and will always be, unless we eradicate injustice and the need to flee for any kind of danger.
The case with refugees is that they were and are forced to leave what they dearly love against their will, because that is their last resort to save their lives. But when they leave their place of origin, they come with their human capital, which, for certain, will be a blessing to the host country. Refugees and migrants have much more to bring than what they would initially take from a host country.
LT: As you advocate for immigration reform that protects refugees, what do you want to make sure and tell your legislators?
YM: I would like to tell my legislators what it means to be a refugee. For me a refugee is not defined by “how” a person entered a country but by “why.” The distinction between social and political or religious reasons for differentiating a refugee from the other is also so artificial. At the cause of all migrations is danger to the lives of the individuals who are immigrating. To have a system that welcomes those who have come to our home is the noblest thing that countries like ours can and should do. We need an immigration reform that is humane, respectful of family unity, protects the vulnerable, and respects the security of our nation. I know this is a very complex issue, but that is what Americans do: tackle complex issues and prevail.
LT: What are your plans for the future?
YM: I am very thankful to the Lord that I have been privileged to serve the greater cause of reaching out to all people, migrants and people of host communities, in North America. As a national leader, I had a more global view of what needs to be done. Now that I am serving in Northeast Indiana, I have the opportunity to be engaged locally with the grass roots. I look forward to making my community a welcoming community for all people. As an individual, who has a direct impact in my sphere of influence, I will do all that I can to make my world a better world for all in it. I pray that all of my friends in the Refugee Alumni will do the same, and challenge others to do likewise. I have understood the power of “one”; and that is why this “one” will always be there for the cause of Refugees and migrants.
LIRS offers many resources for those looking for ways to speak out on World Refugee Day. For starters, please stand with refugees by raising your voice today through our Action Center! You can also get your congregation involved by signing up for our free World Refugee Day kit, or honor our refugee leaders by attending our Walk of Courage Award Dinner. Tickets are available here. Keep standing for welcome!