“So, what grade are you in?” the well-meaning youth pastor asked me, intending to invite me to high-school group. Ah, the familiar curse of eternal youthfulness. I smiled and explained that I’m actually in my twenties, swallowing the urge to snidely reply, “Seventeenth.”
Today, I can truly say that I am indeed in seventeenth grade; or, as it is better known, the first year of my master’s degree. Today is my first day of school, and I feel just like I did when I started my first day of kindergarten.
Part of the reason that I’m so excited to start school again is that it does not involve any math this time. Can I get a hallelujah? The other part is that I get to study something that I enjoy and that I see as significantly impactful to the world. I’m earning an MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies from the University of London International. The training will equip me to work with refugees, NGOs, and governments to be a part of the solution for people experiencing forced migration.
I don’t have a lot of experience working with refugees (a few days of volunteering at refugee events in Phoenix, a summer in East Africa, and many conversations with friends and family who have been displaced), but I’ve seen enough overseas and in my own hometown to show me the reality of the refugee situation and the great need for more workers in the refugee protection field.
It’s a hard field in many ways, because you’re working with humans and not hard facts. This is one time when I do think math would be easier, because you either have the right answer or you don’t. Not so when you’re working with refugees. Often their wellbeing depends on what you do, there’s not one right answer when it comes to handling victims of conflict, and it’s often easier to see the right choice in retrospect. Just look at the knots that the Syrian refugee crises has put so many governments into. The U.S. is completely divided on how to handle the potential influx of immigrants. Europe is learning how to accept the change that a new population will bring. NGOs are working to protect people who have nowhere to go, and wicked people are doing everything they can to take advantage of their vulnerability. Somewhere in that mess, there are refugee experts working hard to make sure the displaced people are protected and resettled. It’s messy, it’s painful, and it’s amazing. I want to be in the middle of the chaos and the hurt and be a part of the solution.
I used to always ask God why I was born in a safe, privileged place. Why me, when so many people who are better than I am are born into places of suffering? I eventually stopped asking Him why and started asking what. I don’t know if we’ll ever come up with an answer as to why God lets some people have more privileged lives than others. But I do think He gives us a very clear answer about what we can do with the opportunities we have. Sometime during my college days at Arizona Christian University, I heard a chapel speaker or a professor talk about pressing into places of pain. And it clicked with me. I can use my relatively painless existence to enter places of pain and suffering and “bring heaven down to places of Hell on earth,” as writer Palmer Chinchen puts it. That’s what I really want to do with my degree. I want to learn how to work at the highest level to alleviate that suffering as quickly as possible. I want to bring the messy warmth of humanity to the coldness of political policy. But most of all, I want to learn how I can enter into someone’s place of suffering and walk with them to the end.
To be honest, I don’t know what that looks like or feels like yet. I’m just sitting here at my kitchen table with my dog at my feet, first online assignment of my first class completed and an empty teacup next to me. I can’t image the realities of the things I’ll be studying over the next few weeks. I can’t picture what my life will look like in ten years when I finally get to get my hands dirty and do some real work with real issues and real people in East Africa. All I know is that for the next two years of my life, I’ll progress in my education, one step at a time, toward that unknown place. All I can do today is the task set in front of me.
It’s the first school day of many.