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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Refugees’ stories are compelling

Jackson Lino was overwhelmed seeing 1 million refugees in world’s largest refugee camp.

With the power of his story as a refugee from South Sudan and the voices of children in the Neema Refugee Children’s Choir, Jackson Lino builds awareness about experiences of refugees in his role as churches and community relations coordinator with World Relief in Spokane.

“Our duty is to be an example and advocate for those who do not speak English well so we cultivate unity and respect among people in the community,” he said of his work telling his story and encouraging refugees to share their stories.

World Relief, which has been resettling refugees in the Inland Northwest for 25 years, resettled its 10,000th refugee last fall.  The flow of new refugees has now slowed to about 200 a year, rather than 600.

Refugees who come have passed through security and medical checks after years in refugee camps, said Jackson.

He knows.  He experienced years of waiting as a teen.

Refugees are people who have experienced persecution based on race, gender, religion, political affiliation or identity, Jackson said. 

They may be in refugee camps 18 months, three years or all their lives.  When they flee their country and go to a refugee camp in another country, they must learn the language there.

World Relief, which has 25 resettlement offices, is one of nine U.S. agencies that resettle refugees approved by the State Department.

When refugees arrive in Spokane, World Relief volunteers holding banners welcome them at the airport.  The volunteers take the refugees to apartments and teach them to use the refrigerator, microwave, stove and other appliances.

Over the next 90 days, World Relief enters the children in schools, and helps adults find training and jobs, and apply for medical services, health insurance and a green card—the path to citizenship in five years.

“Having been a refugee, I understand what many have gone through,” said Jackson, who shares his stories at congregations and community groups.

“When I was two years old, living with my family in Sudan, my parents died.  My sister and I were orphans,” he said.

“I was kidnapped and lived a difficult life until I was seven years old, before an incident began to restore meaning to my life,” he said.  “I entered a hut, where I saw a father, mother and two children. 

“The man walked to me, looked me in the eye and said, ‘Son, this is not what you are called to do.’

“No one had called me ‘son’ or looked at me,” Jackson said.  “He held me, shielded me from being shot and gave up his life for me. 

“I had no idea there were people like that,” said Jackson.  “Never before had I felt the compassion and love this man bestowed on me.”

Jackson escaped and ran for days.  He did not know where he was.  He kept running and crossed a river. There were children playing soccer inside a fence, and two guards were at a gate.  A woman was cooking.  He went in.  He was told to go away, but came back.

“A girl inside the fence kept pointing at me.  It was my sister.  We had been separated for years, but she recognized me.  It was a miracle.  They let me in the camp,” Jackson said.

The refugee camp in Uganda had thousands of people.  He thought he had no family, but his sister was with an aunt and uncle, who also took him in as family.  Four years later, after that camp burned, they went to a camp in Sudan and began the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) screening process.

“I believed there was something for me to do.  God was in my life,” said Jackson, whose years of trauma, fear and worry now help him identify with other refugees. 

After another four years, he was accepted to go to the United States with his extended family.

The day he was given a ticket, he was so excited he ran in the rain.  As a truck drove them to the airport, he heard guns firing.

“To this day, I see news of refugees forced out of their homes, fearful for their lives and families, and I remember,” Jackson said.

“It was another miracle when I boarded the plane,” he said.

“I was afraid of planes, because they bombed and hurt people,” he said, adding that his plane took him to New York City, where he first stepped foot on American soil.

“I saw lights and people.  I heard noise and cars,” he said.  “It was foreign. There were so many lights that I could not see the stars but the hospitality was awesome.”

From there, they flew to Boise, where “life started.”

“People came to the airport with banners to welcome us, even though they did not know who we were,” Jackson said.  “A pastor came to talk.  I could not understand.”  The translator said the pastor said, “We have been praying for you.”

“I felt the same emotion I felt when the man gave his life for me.  I fell to my knees.  The pastor picked me up and hugged me,” said Jackson, who now he tells people how privileged and blessed he is, and tells them they, too, are privileged and blessed.

“Don’t take life for granted,” he said.  “Care for your families.   Speak up.  Share your stories. You can make a difference.”

World Relief resettles families and guides them as they place them in apartments and help them adapt to their new lives. 

Jackson had a room with a bed, but slept on the hard floor.  He took a glass and fresh clean water out of the refrigerator and realized he didn’t have to walk 13 miles to get dirty water.

“I was given shoes and clothes. People around me shared love,” he said. “Refugees need presence, time and energy from volunteers.

When he first arrived, he knew no English, but students, teachers, pastors and others helped him learn it.  School was hard.  He did not understand the language or culture. Another student helped him through the first day.

“The love I was shown allowed me to step forward and progress.  I struggled with school, but people came around,” Jackson said.

For the first 10 years, his family lived in Boise where he finished high school, studied health and physical education at Boise State University, and started a Neema Choir.  Then he lived two years in Fargo, N.D., where he started another choir.  His family is still there.

He has started a Neema Choir in Spokane since coming four years to work with World Relief.

More than 20 youth, ages 10 to 18, are in the choir, through which he offers guidance and raises funds for them to go to college.  The children are among 2,300 Congolese, Ugandan, Sudanese and Kenyan refugees and immigrants in the Spokane area.

They share their stories to open the minds of people who think refugees are terrorists or steal jobs.

“Some fear or hate people if they disagree or are different,” he said, inviting people to open their hearts to those who hurt and need love.

“I want refugees to feel welcome,” said Jackson, who completed college while working with World Relief.

“Countless refugees around the world seek the same justice and freedom I have, but are unable to come here,” said Jackson.

He also knows that from recent experience.  He traveled in March with Mark Finney, director of World Relief in Spokane, to Bangladesh, to visit the Kutapulong camp, the world’s largest refugee camp with more than 1 million Rohingya refugees.

“The first day, I heard the sounds of children playing, but then I walked through the camp and saw the trauma and severity of the lives of people on their faces,” he said, overwhelmed walking through the camp where a million people live.  Another 650,000 live in two nearby camps.

“I was horrified by the conditions.  I saw the orphans and connected, but I shut my emotions off, but a few days ago, I became angry, realizing that countless children and adults are in the camps waiting, having no education.  It’s surreal, hard to comprehend the magnitude of suffering that is going on around the world,” said Jackson, who attends the Living Sacrifice Christian Church and River City Church.

Now he redoubles his commitment to have the Neema Choir visit different churches each week to share their stories and invite people to advocate for refugees.

“We sing in Swahili, English, French and Arabic,” he said.  “We seek to bring awareness and unity, build understanding that differences are a good thing and bring peace that bridges differences.”

The children and youth share many of their stories in music, but some also tell of their lives.

“Our theme song is ‘I Am Not Forgotten,’ because many when they were in refugee camps felt they were forgotten,” Jackson said.

As they came to the U.S. and learned about God, he said they realized they were never forgotten by God: “No matter what our situation, God is there,” he said.

They will sing May 7 at the Children’s Justice Conference at the Convention Center.

The Neema Youth Choir will perform, “Not Forgotten,” a benefit concert for refugees at 5:30 p.m., Friday, May 11, at the Cathedral of St. John, 127 E. 12th Ave.

The concert features multicultural music with the Neema Youth choir, St. John’s Junior and Adult Choirs, Pilgrim Slavic Church’s Orchestra and other performers. There will also be a silent auction.

For information, call 484-9829 or email jlino@wr.org, or visit worldreliefspokane.org

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