Walking with Refugees

Seth King, photograph by  Ashley Perlberg

Seth King, photograph by Ashley Perlberg

By Seth King

The first time I knowingly met a family that had been given refugee status, I was 18.

I showed up to their apartment on the outskirts of my college town thinking I was helping them. Truthfully though, after spending all of my childhood and adolescence among a community that largely looked like, thought like, and talked like me, I had no idea what I was doing.

Every day I came over to help with homework was a reminder to me that I skated by most of my high school classes without actually learning and that I had nearly no ability to assist my new friends from Central Africa with their homework. Instead of helping with homework, we ended up playing a lot of soccer. And by playing soccer, I mean they played soccer and I let them knock me over a lot because I’m not athletic and it made them feel good beating up on a tall, white, dutch-looking dude from the United States.

After some months of this, I sort of just stopped going because I thought my Bible college life of finding a wife before I turned 20 was more worthwhile than investing in a mutual relationship with newcomers in my city. I missed out in digging into those relationships that could have been so much more. (Side note: I never found my bible college wife, but I really like the woman who did agree to marry me)

Fast forward almost a decade later, I was standing in the waiting area for the A, B and C gates at PDX International Airport. I was about to meet a family that I volunteered up to walk alongside for the next eight months. I didn’t really know that much more than I did years before, but at least this time I had an idea of how little I actually knew. I knew I had a lot to learn. I knew that welcoming people well, showing hospitality, and living into the vocation I had been given the gift of stepping into, took a lot of work.

It wasn’t just a warm feeling, it wasn’t just a strongly worded social media post condemning a politician or political party. It was a choice to learn from and walk next to newcomers and sojourners in our midst.

That night in the airport, the first night my new friends would step into our now-shared city, we grabbed their bags and headed to their new home in NE Portland.

The days ahead we would read books, practice each other’s languages, play a lot of Uno and Dominos and hesitantly eat each other’s food. At first this relationship that felt forced and functional, then it shifted to something formative and full of depth as we shared life with one another. The following months were messy, beautiful and sometimes boring. Like normal relationships with friends or family, it was all the things, and sometimes it was really hard.

A few weeks ago, I got a call inviting me to celebrate the graduation of the first two kids in the family to complete high school here. They had a ticket waiting for me for that day.

While we had drifted away in the craziness of life from the depth we once shared, I was elated to show up and celebrate with my friends.

I proudly made my way to the Rose Quarter for the graduation and yelled as loud as I possibly could as they crossed the stage to proudly take their diplomas. I found myself sitting in an uncomfortable chair thinking about how strange and beautiful it has been for our stories to intersect over the years. The afterparty out front felt like no time had passed since we first shared meals around sticky tables and I would awkwardly excuse myself from eating the food my friends graciously made me because I couldn’t quite stomach it.

What a gift to know and be known by friends full of such richness as we realize we’ve all got something to share with each other.

As Imago Dei prays about spaces and places to step into among those in our city, we are exploring what it means for our community to take part in learning from and walking next to those who find themselves dropped into the messiness of refugee resettlement. We want to do this well. We aren’t looking to show up and save anyone. We’re looking to LOVE in the very best ways we can.

Join us July 14th at 6:30pm for a night of storytelling, an overview of global and local refugee situations and practical things we can do to embrace newcomers to our city a little better than we did before. Refugee Care Collective is in love with the heart of Imago Dei Community, and we’re excited to jump into this complexity with you.

Learn more about this training.

Seth King is the programs manager at the Refugee Care Collective and director or Elementary at Imago Dei Community. At RCC, he’s responsible for connecting, training and walking alongside volunteers entering into relationship with newcomers to Portland, and works closely with resettlement agency partners. Seth is passionate about understanding what the people we serve are experiencing, leaning in when it’s difficult, and our new neighbors receiving the tools and resources needed to transition well.