I was able to visit a refugee camp on the northern border between Ethiopia and Eritrea a few years ago. It was a long trek up from the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, involving multiple short flights and then what felt like an endless drive through the Ethiopian mountains. The van we took was suitably rickety, the driver suitably blasé, and the roads suitably ancient having been laid by the Italians during the colonial era of the beginning of the 20th century -and left alone ever since.
I’ve read and heard a lot of stories about persecution. Some are dramatic and recount tales of deliverance from extreme circumstances; some are quiet, soft tales of persistent faith in difficult circumstances; many are long-term, daily grinds of patient, difficult trial; some are the total uncertainty of camp life.
The women that I met there stuck with me the most. Their experience is of course very different from the male experience – no more or less valuable, but very different. They continue to make a home for their families, raising children, providing what food they can, supporting their husbands. Or without husbands, keeping the family afloat, working in the various entrepreneurial outlets. (On that note, they were a very entrepreneurial bunch with businesses cropping up everywhere – my favourite was the bar that showed the Premier League and therefore gave them more access to English football than I have at home!)
While we were there meeting with Christian leaders in the camp, hearing their stories of escape from Eritrea and the limbo life of the refugee – displaced from Eritrea, but not sure of their future in Ethiopia – the women quietly went about supplying us with food, chatting to us about their experience and introducing us to their children. It wasn’t until we were about to leave that I realised one of our hosts was mid-way through a second pregnancy.
I think it’s this that sticks with me most – this lovely, gracious, generous, pressured woman was preparing to bring a new baby into the world … in a refugee camp. It wasn’t an awful camp, it was fine compared to some of the horror stories we hear of some camps, but it was a camp. It was limbo, displaced, lacking identity. What does that child say later in life about where it was born? Which nation does it belong to? What identity does it have?
And that’s all assuming that the child arrived safely, born into a camp with basic facilities and basic care. None of us would choose to have a baby in a camp, and we can be sure that for this lady, a camp was not her maternity ward of choice.
Except, of course, it was. Kind of.
She did choose to have a baby in a camp because she chose to follow Jesus. She didn’t have to do that – she could have denied him and probably gone about a relatively normal life in Eritrea. It wouldn’t have been what we’d experience in the UK, but it wouldn’t have been a makeshift camp in the Ethiopian desert.
But she didn’t deny him. She knew that her saviour was more precious than her birth plan, her hope for her baby, even than her baby itself.
When remembering that woman, a lady who’s name I don’t even know, I remember something of the daily grind of persecution; the daily grind of saying “Jesus is Lord” and life panning out from there.
I pray for that lady, for her family, for her baby. I pray that she found safety; I pray for her family’s security, I pray for her faith.
I pray that I would make the same choice: to say “Jesus is Lord”.