The Glo(cal) Outlook | Winter 2012


A New Twist on Service Learning Through the Refugee Project

A New Twist on Service Learning Through the Refugee Project

By Ruby O’Connor, SPU Senior


“… the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe. He executes justice for the orphan and the widow and shows his love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:17-19

Time and time again throughout the Bible, God exhorts us to care for the weak and powerless. And, time and time again, the description of the "weak and powerless" includes, and even emphasizes, foreigners forced to live in another country.

Today, the loudest voices speaking out in the public arena call for financial responsibility, protection of the American identity, and a focus on national security at all costs. But the exhortations and commands to care for the weak seem strangely silent. While we renovate our churches, talk about building community, and embark on churchwide financial campaigns, over 70,000 refugees are arriving on our shores in need of financial support, cultural education, and the simple gift of companionship.

Cultural Companions and Friends

For the past year, I have had the privilege of being welcomed as a friend by several of these refugee families resettled just south of Seattle in Kent, Washington. Urban Involvement, a student-involvement branch of the John Perkins Center at Seattle Pacific University, has partnered with World Relief, refugee resettlement agency that seeks to “empower the local church to serve the most vulnerable.” This allows SPU students (and other volunteers) to come alongside these families as “cultural companions.”


As I volunteered with the refugees as an English teacher over the summer, I came to appreciate the diversity of the refugee experience. Each refugee is fleeing a very real threat, but his or her story is unique. I couldn’t begin to fathom the emotions these individuals are feeling. Even less could I compare their experiences to anything I’ve known in my 21 years of comfortable American living.


When friends ask me about my summer, I tell them that my biweekly experiences at World Relief were some of the most pleasurable and eye-opening parts of my college career. I now know that God exhorts us to love the foreigners among us not only because we can help them, but also because they can, and do, bless us in return.

Stepping Into Their Shoes

Today, as the SPU coordinator for World Relief, I share these experiences with other SPU students. And in November, we participated in The Refugee Project — a daylong simulation of the refugee experience.

Students were placed into family groups, told we spoke a minimal amount of English, and instructed to memorize our “story” as refugees. Throughout the day, we were sent through a “feeding station,” into “medical clinic,” and given a “State Department interview.” We were also exposed to the realization that, as refugees, we were only one face out of a million equally helpless faces.

We learned that in our “refugee camp” employees didn’t care about us, couldn’t find the time to deal with our problems or communicate clearly, didn’t have the resources to help us, expected us to find our own solutions to impossible dilemmas, and tried to bribe us along the way.


Although I was the coordinator for the project, this was my first time participating in the simulation. The brief amount of time I spent in the refugee’s shoes that day was nothing compared to the average of 17 years most refugees spend in a camp before being resettled. But the experience opened my eyes to so many of the feelings that refugees must confront. The feelings of hopelessness and abandonment in an almost-impossible situation became much more real — yet even more difficult to fathom.

Yet for me, the most heartbreaking part of the experience was hearing two refugee speakers who candidly shared their experiences. The two women, one from Burma and one from Bhutan, had been my students during the summer. And now as they told us their stories with honesty and emotion, I could only reflect on my simulation experience in amazement.


These brave women had experienced strong persecution for their faith and ethnicity. But they were still willing to share that experience so that we could learn a bit more about what their lives and the lives of so many others. In one short hour, these women taught me more about selfless courage and compassion than I had ever learned before.

And again I knew that by creating friendships with these refugees, I am following God’s command to “Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” while gaining the role models I need to shape me into the person he created me to be.


Ruby O'ConnorRuby O'Connor is a Seattle Pacific University senior from Sandpoint, Idaho, majoring in international political science. She serves as the Urban Involvement team leader for World Relief. After graduation, she will be teaching in Appalachia with Teach for America; she plans to eventually work, live, and teach in Turkey or the Middle East.




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