“It’s like God opened a door. I just stepped into it,” said 72-year-old NGO worker who serves refugees at our doorstep
Ting Siew Lee // September 29, 2020, 5:19 pm
After Jean visited a refugee camp in a country up north, she was faced with this question in a questionnaire: "Would you come back to serve the refugees?" Although she struggled, she found herself writing: "Yes." It has been four years since and she has never regretted it. Photo by Julie Ricard on Unsplash.
At a time when most people are taking life easy, 72-year-old Jean* is on a great adventure, and has no plans to slow down.
“It’s like God opened a door. I just stepped into it,” she said.
It all began with a trip to a country up north in November 2016. Like most Singaporeans, Jean associated the country with good food, shopping and sightseeing. But a huge surprise was in store for her and her friends.
One question in the NGO questionnaire gripped her heart: “Will you come back and serve the refugees?”
They visited an NGO working with refugees and were stunned by the reality that there were so many of them. “I felt so ignorant even though I visited the country every year.”
According to the UNHCR, there are over 177,000 refugees and asylum seekers in the country who are registered with the agency, as of April 2020. It’s likely that the real number is far higher as many more may be unregistered.
As the country is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention, the refugees are classified as illegal immigrants. This means they cannot work legally and their children cannot go to national schools. They are amongst some of the most vulnerable people in the country.
At the end of her three-day visit to the NGO, she had to fill up a questionnaire. One question gripped her heart: “Will you come back and serve the refugees?”
“I couldn’t answer that question. The Spirit said, ‘Come back.’ But I struggled with God. ‘To do what?’
“Then the leader said it was time to return the questionnaire, and I wrote ‘Yes’.”
Famine of hearing
In the months that followed, Jean continued to wrestle with God about returning to serve the refugees. The breakthrough came during her silent retreat at Chiang Mai.
“The people have fled their homelands because there is a famine of hearing My Word. Go there and feed them.”
Jean had decided to read the Minor Prophets during her retreat. One day, she came to Amos 8:11:
“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord,
“when I will send a famine through the land –
not a famine of food or a thirst for water,
but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.”
“The verse stirred me. I asked God, ‘What does it mean? You must tell me.’”
Provoked from deep within, Jean went to a chapel to pray. Minutes later, she heard God, loud and clear.
“Jean, I’m sending you to this country. The people have fled their homelands because there is a famine of hearing My Word. Go there and feed them.”
As she recounted God’s message to her, she paused for a moment before continuing: “Even now, I have goose bumps just talking about it. I said ‘Yes, God’, and He took over to guide and teach. Most significantly, He has been a present help in various situations.”
Three verses, one instruction
In the middle of 2017, Jean left for the country and worked among the refugees for one-and-a-half years. She returned to Singapore in 2018 to seek God’s direction for her next steps.
God spoke clearly once again, through three verses, in early 2019.
“The fields are not just white unto harvest. They are golden fields.”
“Declare His glory among the nations, His wonders among all peoples.” (1 Chronicles 16:24)
“Therefore, seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not …” (2 Corinthians 4:1)
“… for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:13)
“These verses struck me as a single instruction from God to continue working amongst the refugees,” said Jean. She returned to the country again in April 2019.
Jean currently serves in a learning centre that teaches youths and adults aged 13 to 40. The work is challenging because some students have no understanding of English. In every class, the students are of mixed ages and abilities.
Altogether, the NGO operates centres in 17 locations across the country, serving 1,000 students from 19 different nationalities.
Jean’s passion for her work is undeniable. As she described her work among the refugees, she exclaimed with excitement: “The fields are not just white unto harvest. They are golden fields. It’s an amazing chance to reach out to the nations right at our doorstep.” (John 4:35)
Apart from teaching every day, the staff visited the homes of the students to get to know the students’ families better. Jean got to witness how some of them live.
Out of the seven families she visited, four had children who were stricken with cerebral palsy.
“I remember visiting a family living on the fourth floor. After turning the corner of the first flight of stairs, it was pitch dark. A girl had to hold a torch to shine on the steps. They were staying on the fourth floor because it was the cheapest apartment. There were no lights so the family could save on utilities.”
On another occasion, Jean visited seven Middle Eastern families. Out of the seven families, four had children who were stricken with cerebral palsy.
“Some were children, and the oldest was an 18-year-old young man who just lay on the floor,” Jean said. “His father would have to carry him if they went out. Families like these hope to get priority to be relocated.”
Another sad memory was when a 14-year-old student called her to say she had to stop school.
“Her father was arranging her marriage. My heart broke.”
The first step
Jean is single. Her siblings are supportive of her work among the refugees.
“We just have to take the first step and say ‘Yes’ to God. He will take care of the second and third steps.”
What advice does she have for seniors who may hear a call to go out and serve the displaced and marginalised, but struggle to step out of their comfort zones?
“We just have to take the first step and say ‘Yes’ to God. He will take care of the second and third steps, which are the concerns that hold us back.
“He cannot show us the next steps until we say ‘Yes’ first!”
*Names and places have been withheld for the protection of the interviewees.
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