The children from the Congo read from a workbook in unison in a Jubilee Partners schoolroom in Comer. In an adjacent room, a refugee from Burma sits with coins on a chart. She’s learning how to count money. In the preschool room, children gather around a table on a snack break. There are puzzles and toys. There are laughs and the typical fascination when a smart phone is brought to floor level and the kids can see their faces reflected back in the camera. A child pokes her tongue out at herself in the phone’s screen and giggles.
Jubilee Partners, a Christian refugee welcoming camp in Comer, has been open for 38 years. In that time, over 3,700 refugees from 33 countries have been to the quiet country setting for what is typically a two-month stay. The refugees have generally been through a two-year application process before arriving at the camp, which is only a temporary home, a place where refugees learn about America and how to be productive and healthy here, before moving elsewhere. They take English classes. They learn about American culture. The Americans learn about them. It takes five years before a refugee can officially become a U.S. citizen. And Jubilee helps get that process rolling for many hopeful new residents.
Brad Smith, who has lived with his wife, Jennifer Drago, since the mid 1990s and raised three children at Jubilee, looks at the van of three Congolese women returning from Kroger Thursday morning. He imagines the shock a big box store is for women from a rural area of Africa. He recalls the amazement a refugee once expressed about a dog-food aisle, that such a thing existed, a long row of cans for pet food.
“This is for your dogs?” Smith recalled the man asking with wonder, since he had never seen such aisles, even for people.
The refugees often come from truly harsh settings, places with violence, famine, political oppression.
Families are sometimes torn apart before arriving at Jubilee. For instance, a mom and child may go through the vetting process and be approved for asylum in the U.S., but a dad may not. And a woman must make the choice of staying in a bleak refugee camp and keeping the family together or seeking a new life, minus one.
Drago wanted to understand more about their lives before they arrive at Jubilee. So last year, she took a four-day trip to Thailand to the Mae La Burmese refugee camp to see what life was like.
“In the camp I visited, there were 40,000 people,” said Drago. “I was there for four days. It would be hard to stay there and not have any options, no future for yourself and so many uncertainties. I don’t really know what it’s like to have my child cry from hunger.”
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