James and Otis Pewee have an extraordinary tale to tell. What’s even more remarkable is that they’re alive to tell it.
In July 1990, the Pewee brothers were living in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, when a vicious civil war reached their home.
“We could hear the guns, and bullets were falling everywhere,” recalls James, now 37 and living in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
“People were terrified. They were yelling, ‘They’re coming! The soldiers are coming!’ So we fled.”
James, together with three of his brothers, left Monrovia on foot, leaving behind their father and youngest brother to care for their disabled mother.
He describes what they saw as they made their escape under fire. “Everywhere we looked, everywhere we turned, the entire highway was covered in dead bodies. There were no soldiers, just dead people.”
Terrified but determined to survive, James and his brothers made their way along jungle paths to Fenda, a rural satellite campus of the University of Liberia. There they joined 300,000 other men, women, and children living as refugees.
20 Million Refugees
There are an estimated 20 million people around the world who fall under the United Nations definition of “refugee.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) depends on countries like Canada and the United States to help resettle many of those who are unable to return home.
In 1979, the government of Canada invited several denominations, including the Christian Reformed Church, to share the responsibility for refugee resettlement by introducing private sponsorship. (The United States currently does not permit private sponsorship of refugees.)
Private sponsorship agreement holders such as the CRC arrange for groups, churches, or individuals to financially support sponsored individuals or families for up to12 months. In total, 189,000 refugees have come to Canada by way of private sponsors such as the CRC.
The annual quota on refugees has dropped significantly over the last quarter of a century. In 1979, 60,000 refugees from Vietnam were resettled in Canada, more than half through private sponsorship. Today the number hovers around 11,000 refugees per year, with 3,000 to 3,500 openings allocated to private sponsorship agreement holders.
“The government says it is using its resources to the fullest extent and cannot process any more applications per year than they are currently doing,” explained Rose Dekker, CRWRC’s refugee sponsorship coordinator.
“Canada is not even able to meet its annual targets (for refugees) because rejection rates are very high,” Dekker added.
Reduced quotas also affect those seeking entry to the United States. Though 70,000 refugees were once welcomed into the United States each year, that number was reduced to 30,000 per year following the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Only recently has it started to go back up.
Today 100,000 spots are available each year in the nine countries that accept the bulk of refugees worldwide. With the world’s doors less willing to swing open, more refugees spend years in the virtual captivity of refugee camps.
For James Pewee and his family, even the dubious safety of a refugee camp was thousands of miles—and many trials—away.
In 1994 Liberia was experiencing relative peace under an interim government and the protection of the Economic Community Military Observation Group of West Africa (ECOMOG). Then, on Christmas Eve, rebels attacked.
“Rebels were suddenly firing on our house because they thought we were ECOMOG,” says James. “We lay flat on the ground; we couldn’t move an inch.”
When rebels entered the house, James tried to protect his family. “I faced them with my hands up, trying to back away. I said, ‘Don’t shoot! Civilians in the house.’”
But they did shoot. Wounded in his arm, shoulder, and leg, James collapsed on the floor and played dead while his younger brother, Otis, jumped out of a window and ran to a nearby building.
As James lay bleeding, his mother, who had been hiding under a bed, pleaded with the men to spare her life. The last words he heard his mother say were, “I’m handicapped, please don’t kill me.” Then one of the men murdered her with a knife.
When ECOMOG forces moved in the rebels retreated, but not before setting the house ablaze. As ECOMOG secured the area, James and Otis were taken to the hospital together with James’s girlfriend, Mawen, who had been badly burned.
Meanwhile, James’s brother Dongo, who was in Canada interning as a pastor at a Christian Reformed church in St. Catharines, Ontario, approached his deacons with a very personal request.
“Dongo asked us if we could get (his family) here on humanitarian reasons, as refugees,” recalls Robert DeVries, chair of deacons at Maranatha CRC in St. Catharines. The congregation quickly agreed to try.
The Christian Reformed Church signed a private sponsorship agreement with the Canadian government in 1979. Since then CRC churches have helped 2,230 families from around the world find refuge in Canada. Maranatha is among those churches, having sponsored a total of 20 refugees.
With Maranatha’s agreement, Dongo contacted his family in Liberia. James, with brothers Otis and John and their father, Keesle, got on a plane for a refugee camp in Cote D’Ivoire. They applied for visas to be admitted to Canada as refugees. But after two and a half months of waiting, they were rejected, having failed to persuade Canadian immigration officials that it was not safe for them to return to Liberia.
James reapplied, citing his need for medical attention and the financial support he would receive from Maranatha. He and his father received permission to enter Canada for health reasons, but John and Otis had to stay behind.
Eventually Otis moved back to Monrovia. In 1998 he made contact with James, who sent money to help his younger brother. But in 2003, war broke out again. “This one was the worst of all,” Otis says. “There was no food, no water, no hospital. You couldn’t leave (by land) or you’d be killed.”
Ghanaian and Nigerian forces airlifted some Liberians safely out of the country, but Otis didn’t have enough money for a ticket. Once again, James turned to the people of Maranatha, and once again the church came through.
Otis arrived in Ghana in November 2003. While waiting for a ride to the Buduburum refugee camp, he met a friend, Jallah Arku. The young men were related; James had married Jallah’s sister. They also had one other thing in common: both were being sponsored by Maranatha.
“We are all God’s people”
With just 82 families in its congregation, Maranatha was undertaking a challenge. Refugee sponsorship requires commitment and money, as well as patience. Even for a church with previous experience, it is not easy.
But “we knew from the onset that this was not just a one-shot deal,” Maranatha’s Robert DeVries says. “This was a continuing thing, since James and his dad first came.”
Otis and Jallah arrived in Canada and are adapting to life in North America. They live a short distance from James in St. Catharines, where Jallah anxiously awaits the arrival of his wife, three children, and brothers.
“[The Pewees and Jallah] have become such a huge part of our church here,” says Eric Kuipery, a member of Maranatha’s diaconal board. “It’s hugely gratifying to see them grow as part of the church. Otis was recently up for deacon and Jallah was up for elder.”
DeVries said the experience has made the church more accepting of people from other races and cultures and quicker to celebrate the fact that “we are all God’s people.”
Learning Tour to Build Compassion, Understanding
“Be changed and make change.” That’s the challenge put forward by the Refugee Learning Tour, a 13-day journey into the heart of eastern Africa’s refugee camps.
The tour to refugee camps in Kenya and Uganda, to be held March 11-24, offers a close-up look at what it means to be a refugee.
“Our goal is to help people experience refugee life in a number of settlements and transit camps so that they can witness the difficulties and challenges of refugees first hand,” says Rose Dekker, refugee sponsorship coordinator with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC).
Dekker, together with co-worker Moses Moini, will accompany the group on the learning tour.
“We expect that this learning tour will equip participants to carry out refugee sponsorship and advocacy work with greater understanding and effectiveness once they return,” Moini said.
The group will visit the Shagwali refugee camp in Uganda and Kakuma in Kenya—two of the largest refugee settlement and transit centers in eastern Africa—and will meet with officials from the Ugandan Ministry of Internal Security, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the Canadian High Commission.
The group also will enjoy some of God’s creation in Africa, with a stop at Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park, and will worship with local Christians in Nairobi, Kenya.
Costs for the tour are paid by the individual participants.
How You Can Help
Refugee sponsorship is different in Canada and in the United States.
An agreement between the government of Canada and the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) allows Canadian congregations to sponsor refugees. A local congregation welcomes the refugee and helps the refugee find a place to live, get a job, and become financially independent. For 12 months, or until the refugee is self-supporting, the congregation is responsible for the newcomers’ needs.
In the United States, churches can help resettle refugees by working through the CRC denominational office and with agencies such as Bethany Christian Services/ Program Assisting Refugee Acculturation (PARA) that contract with Church World Service to help families adjust to their new communities.
Here are other ways to show hospitality, concern, or solidarity:
- Speak up for refugee rights. Quotas for annual refugee resettlement have been reduced significantly over the last several years in both Canada and the United States. Write your government, asking officials to increase the number of refugees allowed into the country. If you need help getting started, go to www.crwrc.org and go to “Advocate” under “Get Involved.” U.S. citizens can send their letters to the Office for Refugee Resettlement (a division of the State Department). Canadians can address their letters to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration.
- Help a refugee adapt to a new community. Many refugees experience culture shock when they arrive in North America. You can help by volunteering at a newcomer center in your area. You might teach ESL (English as a Second Language), help with shopping, or just be a friend. In Canada, visit Citizenship and Immigration’s website at www.cic.gc.ca for a list of refugee services across the country. In the United States, contact your local government or volunteer organization to get more information on what’s offered in your area.
To learn more about sponsoring a refugee, contact
Rose Dekker, CRWRC Refugee Coordinator
P.O. Box 5070 STN LCD 1
Burlington, Ontario L7R 3Y8
In the United States:
901 Eastern Avenue NE
PO Box 294
Grand Rapids, MI 49501-0294
616-224-7540 or 1-800-BETHANY